TORONTO — When British writer Allison Pearson was working on her latest novel, I Think I Love You, she plastered the tiny writing room at the top of her house with posters of ’70s teen idol David Cassidy.
She trolled eBay for memorabilia featuring the Partridge Family star and pored over old fanzines adorned with the singer’s smiling visage, his hair perfectly feathered and his teeth impossibly white.
Her husband, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, was a little alarmed by the set-up in their Cambridge home.
“He said: ‘My God, it looks like the lair of a serial killer,”’ Pearson, 50, recalls with a chuckle during a recent interview at the office of her Toronto publisher.
“And it did look like some terrible lunatic stalker. … We think of it as being a kind of childish infatuation, but my God, the raw hunger in it.
“It’s a powerful force. It’s huge, really.”
Pearson expertly channels the obsessive ardour of teen fandom in I Think I Love You (Knopf), which follows Welsh teen Petra as she and her girlfriends hatch a plan to travel to London for a David Cassidy concert. The second half of the novel flashes forward to revisit Petra in 1998, after she’s suffered a few of life’s bumps.
The novel, Pearson’s first since her 2002 harried-mommy manifesto I Don’t Know How She Does It, eerily evokes the mindset of teenage girls caught in the thrall of a musical idol.
Petra wears brown (Cassidy’s favourite colour); she’s annoyed by his Partridge Family co-star Susan Dey, who gets to see him at work every day; she imagines her name as Petra Cassidy; and she is certain the singer is speaking to her in code through his song I Am A Clown.
Like any proper teen-idol worshipper, Petra is also fiercely loyal — she’s left completely puzzled by girls who prefer Donny Osmond over Cassidy and is astonished when one of her friends casually mentions a penchant for Bay City Roller lead singer Les McKeown.
Such detail is sure to invoke cringe-inducing teen-crush memories in many female readers, but Pearson doesn’t shy away from emotional truths.
“I think as a writer you should go towards things you find embarrassing or difficult or secretive,” she says.
The author accomplished that feat in spades with I Don’t Know How She Does It, which struck a pitch-perfect note with exhausted mothers and spawned scores of subsequent “mommy lit” books.
“I guess the first novel was really addressing that secret parallel world that working mothers inhabit where you keep your guilt to yourself and your concerns about work and so on, so I think I was very attracted by that,” she says.
“This (book), as well, feels like it’s a kind of buried emotion … I like things like that because I think if you own up (to something) with all your heart then you make a connection.”
Indeed, Pearson has already received all kinds of letters from readers relating their own tales of teen fandom. It’s a phenomenon, she notes, that is stronger than ever, with current heart-throbs such as Zac Efron, the Twilight stars and omnipresent Canadian star Justin Bieber.
And Pearson, who has two children is not done with the topic yet.
She has plans to write a jukebox musical based on I Think I Love You, and giddily scrolls through an MP3 player during an interview to list off potential tunes for such a show.
Such enthusiasm might indicate that her latest novel was a lark to write, yet that was hardly the case.
After the blockbuster success of I Don’t Know How She Does It (which is currently being made into a movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker), Pearson continued to work as a journalist and set out to write a followup novel. But life intervened.
The author’s mother had two heart attacks. She fell behind on I Think I Love You and was ultimately sued for non-delivery of the book.
“I just fell into quite a bad way really,” she says of that period. “At certain points I was in a very deep depression.”
The dark days seem far away as Pearson discusses I Think I Love You. The book — hard to miss with a hot-pink cover — hits Canadian stores this week.
Cassidy himself (Pearson interviewed the singer in 2003 for a magazine piece that is included at the end of I Think I Love You), is said to be pleased with the book.
Pearson “desperately hopes” that’s true.
“The last thing I would want is to be another person he would feel maybe had exploited him,” she says. “I see the book as a sort of love letter to him.”
After all, while there is certainly plenty of humour and teenaged silliness in I Think I Love You, Pearson takes the sheer force of such early feelings very seriously.
“You look back and think it was just this silly infatuation but actually I think it’s extraordinarily powerful,” she says.
“I think it marks the beginning of the stories that women tell each other about love.”