Anyone who has read Allison Pearson's comic novel about middle-class working mothers called I Don't Know How She Does It remembers the opening scene: It takes place in a kitchen in the dead of the night. An exhausted 30-something mom is busy "distressing" a batch of mincemeat pies she'd picked up earlier at a supermarket, after her child sandbagged her with the news that they were scheduled to bring a "snack" to school the next day. The mom desperately wants the pies to look homemade because otherwise the nutrition-obsessed clique of stay-at-home-moms at her child's school will say nasty things about her mothering skills.
That scene was so dead-on in its depiction of the screwball anxieties fueling the mommy wars that it instantly signaled that Pearson's first novel was going to be a winner. Her latest novel, I Think I Love You, takes more time gathering force. For one thing, the subject is a bit squirmy. Much of the first half of I Think I Love You excavates the agonies of a 13-year-old girl living in Wales in 1974 who, along with her friends, is absolutely smitten with pretty boy David Cassidy (he of The Partridge Family fame).
Pearson's debut was a comedy with sociological heft, but a novel about tween girls' dreamy fixations on a pop progenitor of Justin Bieber seems like a novelty tune; the B side of a chart-busting 45 single, as we would have said back in the day. But, as the novel gets under way, Pearson pulls off something extraordinary: She gives the subject of girl cliques and the intensity of the love they lavish on their idols its full due. For any middle-aged woman out there (and there must be hundreds of thousands of us) who long ago cried herself to sleep because Bobby Sherman or Donny Osmond or Davy Jones of The Monkees was sooo cute and sooo out of reach, I Think I Love You is both an anguished trip back to the mad possessiveness of puppy love and a respectful acknowledgment that it mattered. As our heroine, Petra Williams, says, looking back on her younger, David Cassidy-besotted self: "Yes, it was a kind of madness. It didn't last all that long, not in the great scheme of a life, but while I loved him he was the world entire."
In 1974, Petra is a skinny, serious, dark-haired girl who frantically paddles around the outer edges of a clique. Petra and her sometime best friend, Sharon, enter the Ultimate David Cassidy Quiz sponsored by one of the many fan magazines they read with the brow-furrowing intensity of rabbinical students scrutinizing the Torah. If they win, they'll actually get to fly to California and meet David. But while they're dreaming big dreams, the next best thing happens. David is coming to London to a venue called The White City to play what will be one of his last concerts. The clique decides to go, which in Petra's case means deceiving her strict mother. Here's Petra offering a somber reflection on the coercive power of cliques:
"You chose the kind of friends you wanted because you hoped you could be like them and not you. To improve your image, you made yourself more stupid and less kind. As the months passed, the trade-off for belonging started to feel too great. The shutting down of some vital part of yourself, just so you [would] ... not have to sit on your own at lunch. ... Now among friends, you were often lonelier than you had been before."