The central idea in Allison Pearson's new novel - that the worship of teen idols provides a training ground for real love - is interesting enough to keep your average book club nattering long after the lemon squares have run out. Is "love" what 13-year-old Petra feels for David Cassidy in the spring of 1974?
The truth is surely more sinister. Like all congregants in the church of Tiger Beat, Petra endows Cassidy's sleepy, green-eyed image with all the qualities she wants a male to have, and none that he actually does. Celebrity crushes actually ignite narcissism, or love's mirror opposite; it's a fire that must be extinguished if love with a fully equipped human is to follow later.
But Petra's own fire burns all too politely, and the book's first half suffers for it. Her own case of idolitis is benign and treatable (take two birthdays and call me in the morning). Cowed at every turn by powerful schoolmates and a scary Teutonic mom, she lacks the wild self-love necessary for crazed fanhood. If she were the spunky Kate Reddy, heroine of Pearson's smash 2002 hit I Don't Know How She Does It, she'd be rappelling down hotel dumbwaiters and standing in front of speeding limousines to command attention from the eldest Partridge frère. Instead, she's the retiring type who studies for magazine quizzes and learns all the lyrics to Could It Be Forever. She rings true, and she's super-nice. But she isn't much fun.
Same goes for the book's other main character, Bill, a would-be rock journalist who toils as chief scribe for the British-based Essential David Cassidy Magazine. Naturally, he'd rather be on a tour bus with Jimmy Page, and so, after a while, would we. It's punishingly hard to spend time with someone who is deeply bored by his work, and Cassidy is just too easy a target for Bill's constant cynicism. The puka shell necklaces, the cheesecloth shirts, the weird, feathery hair-wimple; perhaps he's right to wonder what exactly his readers are seeing, but can he not, for a minute, see it himself? C'mon, get happy!
Luckily, Bill cheers up in the second half, when destiny conspires to unite his story with Petra's. She, too, is more complex and captivating here; on the verge of turning 40, she is now a mother, musician and freshly minted ex-wife. It may be a stretch to suggest, as Pearson does, that Petra's love for the unattainable led her to marry an "emotionally unavailable" man. But this section is drenched in such a lovely wash of nostalgia you don't care.
When she finally sees her idol in concert, Petra realizes his "aura" has vanished. As it must for all of us: In our minds, we have picked out wedding china with these young men, memorized their favourite soft drinks and astrological charts, the location of their every imagined mole and scar. And one day - say, at the age of 15? - we don't care about them at all. It's a bittersweet feeling, and one Pearson captures perfectly.
So here is a loving and gushy second half, full of warm sentiment for children, friends and lovers. It's enough to make you forgive a gaping plot hole that would easily swallow the Partridge Family bus. Or to shrug off the fact that Petra's eyes are grey-blue on page 10 and deep brown on page 219. Or to accept the corny badinage between Bill and Petra, apparently lifted straight from one of those old ads for Paco Rabanne aftershave.
I Think I Love You (a perfect title, really) dares to tangle with the thought that those insanely misplaced teenage obsessions actually meant something, and for that reason it ultimately succeeds. Rather niftily, Pearson appends an interview she conducted with the real Cassidy several years ago. She is crestfallen to discover that, contra the fan mags, his fave colour wasn't brown after all; she'd spent puberty swathing herself in unflattering taupes and umbers for nothing. We North Americans had it easier: Here, Cassidy's colour of choice was "Depends on Mood." Which left us all with very full closets, even as our hearts slowly emptied.
Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto writer who met David Cassidy when he was performing at a Calgary dinner theatre in 1982. Life has never been the same.