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Come on, get happy

Following her hit debut, Allison Pearson’s novel about a teen crush on David Cassidy tries to do too much

The novel explores the lives of a Welsh teen and a David Cassidy fan magazine writer. The novel explores the lives of a Welsh teen and a David Cassidy fan magazine writer. (Abc Tv)
By Lylah M. Alphonse
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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Allison Pearson’s first novel, “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” took a look at the pressure society puts on the modern working mom to juggle career, family, and self — and the even greater pressure such women put on themselves to do the same. Readers could easily relate to the main character and her quest to have it all; we looked into the mirror that Pearson held up, and many of us saw ourselves.

Not so much so with her second novel, “I Think I Love You.” It’s billed as “an irresistible romantic comedy about first love,” and while Pearson does capture the heady intensity of a teenage crush, the rest of the book is a mishmash of adolescent angst, young-adult disillusionment, and midlife crises. It’s got some poignant moments, but you may find yourself skimming through much of the book to find them.

Like most of the girls in her tiny Welsh hometown, 13-year-old Petra Williams worships David Cassidy. She loves everything about him, studies everything about him, knows everything about him — at least, she thinks she does.

Her ultimate fantasy is to go to Los Angeles to meet him in person. “Honest to God, I felt that he was speaking to me in code,” she confides. “David felt lonely and trapped in his pop-star life and only I could hear him. And you’d never have guessed it, but being able to feel a bit sorry for him was even better than thinking he was perfect.” The Essential David Cassidy Magazine is Petra’s portal to the “Partridge Family’’ star’s world and, as far as she’s concerned, every word in it is gospel.

Bill Finn is a recent college grad who hopes to make it big writing about rock music. For now, though, he’s the sole feature writer for the Essential David Cassidy Magazine. Every article, every quote, every letter from David is written reluctantly by Bill, based on his own research or, when there are no facts to go on, his imagination.

The fact that his readers worship him as David irritates him. “I know you won’t believe this, but I do not love them from afar. Not one of them,” he tells his boss. “And why don’t I love them? Because they are roughly as intelligent as that cardboard box. And how do I know that? Because they seriously believe that the rubbish I produce on my Smith Corona here represents the actual, sacred sayings of Saint bloody David bloody Cassidy.”

The chapters alternate between Petra’s and Bill’s points of view, but instead of exploring the differences in perspective, Pearson offers up too-obvious plot twists and over-emphasized parallels between the two (which is jarring, given that one character is a 13-year-old girl and the other a 20-something guy). “Honestly, it’s amazing the things you can know about someone you don’t know,” both schoolgirl Petra and fledgling journalist Bill tell us separately, using those exact words.

There are a few gems hidden in its pages. Pearson, a staff writer for the London Daily Telegraph who was infatuated with David Cassidy as a kid, gets the tone of a besotted teenage girl just right: “I would be hit by a car. Not a serious injury, obviously, just bad enough to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. David would be told about my accident and he would rush to my bedside,” she imagines. “Things would be awkward at first, but we would soon get talking and he would be amazed by my in-depth knowledge of his records, particularly the B-sides.” Her depictions of the popular kids’ mean-girl dynamics are cringe-inducingly spot on as well.

Sprinkled throughout are fun excerpts from Bill’s articles, and they could have been clipped from the pages of a 1972 issue of 16 Magazine: “Are you destined for David? David loves every single one of his fans, and he’d love to meet and date each one of you. But as that would take round about 50 years, it wouldn’t be a very practical idea! The kind of girl David would fall for would need to have some rather special qualities — because, after all, David’s a rather special kind of guy!”

But then there are the parts for which you can’t quite manage to suspend your disbelief. As a 13-year-old, Petra offers up insights that are simply too mature for her age; they clash with her teenage experiences, and prevent you from reliving your own. “It’s so hard for a child to understand their parents’ unhappiness,” she muses. “Mine, if only I’d known it, were infected with the virus of incompatibility. Nobody died from it, but nobody lived either.” Twenty-five years later, divorced and with a 13-year-old daughter who has a celebrity crush of her own (Leonardo DiCaprio), Petra doesn’t have enough of these insights to save her from herself.

This book could have been a charming story of a girl’s yearning for love and understanding, or an equally charming story of a woman in her late 30s hoping for the same. Instead, it tries too hard to be both, and becomes clunky and predictable. “I Think I Love You”? More like “Then and Now.” But if, like Pearson, you were a David Cassidy fan yourself, you may find that the book is enough to fuel a trip down memory lane — and sugary enough to make your own memories seem a little sweeter.

Lylah M. Alphonse is a senior editor at Yahoo.com and a former member of the Globe staff. E-mail her at WriteEditRepeat@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter: @WriteEditRepeat.

I THINK I LOVE YOU By Allison Pearson

Knopf, 331 pp., $24.95