Preparing to write a novel about the tender romantic awakening of teenaged girls, British novelist Allison Pearson lined her attic study with vintage posters of her own teen idol, David Cassidy, a Bieber-like boy-man who once had 30 million girls in his fan club – "not just girls who had to click a mouse," the author points out, "but girls who had to cut out the little coupon, make a stamped, self-addressed envelope and send in their two shillings or whatever it was."
Like generations of males before him, Pearson's husband was nonplussed by the puppy-love decor. "He came up and said, 'It looks like the lair of a serial killer,' " the author says.
Such are the literary insights that flash inside one of the sceptred isle's leading literary households, where Pearson and her husband, The New Yorker magazine film critic Anthony Lane, are raising two teenaged children of their own.
Pearson was happy to admit Lane's insight into her imaginative view of a not-so-innocent obsession, she says, "because the teenaged girl is stalking the male in her imagination."
And now that the book, I Think I Love You, has been published to glowing reviews in North America, it is Lane who finds himself locked away, scripting a potentially Broadway-bound musical account of his elegant spouse's embarrassing past. "We're supposed to be collaborating," Pearson complains, "but so far collaborating means him shutting himself in his study and refusing to speak to me."
Not that she isn't busy enough on her own account. A well-known journalist in Britain, Pearson became an internationally bestselling author in 2002 with I Don't Know How She Does It, a novel about the impossible life of a working mother. In addition to promoting I Think I Love You during her current North American tour, she is also making time to visit the New York stage set where Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan are starring in an upcoming film version of her first novel.
Bone-blond in a low-cut dress and redolent with a scent rarely encountered in the workaday warren of her Toronto publisher's office, Pearson presents as the consummate queen of what one dare not call – at least in her presence – chick lit. The hot-pink, lipstick-smudged cover of her book does not tell the whole story.
"I'm interested in the things that might seem slight or amusing, but which I feel have a kind of profundity," she says. "These are the ways we measure our life." Others may call it puppy love. "But I think that great dress rehearsal for love in the female life is profound and very interesting."
It is also sometimes creepy and dangerous, as in the book's true-to-life description at an estrogen-fuelled stampede at a London concert – Cassidy's Altamont – that left one girl dead and put several others in hospital. "I don't think it is just adorable," Pearson says. "It's actually the great sexual competition revving up."
At full chat, I Think I Love You becomes a grown-up romantic comedy true to its inspiration in the screwball tradition of 1930s Hollywood, which Pearson calls "one of my biggest influences." But that, too, serves a serious purpose.
"My strong sense now is that as women have become more equal in society, so their depictions onscreen have become lamer and lamer and lamer, to the point that it's an embarrassment," Pearson says.
As a corrective, she created modern characters with the spirit of such heroines as Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck, playing "these unbelievably great roles where there was never any doubt they were at least the equal of their hapless male escorts – and often superior, and delightfully seen to be so."
But the main reason she wrote a screwball paean to David Cassidy, according to Pearson, is that nobody had done it before. "I felt there were some truths to be expressed in it and about mothers and daughters which would resonate with people," she says. "It's saying things about women's experience which I haven't particularly seen expressed before."
Thus, she proposes her heroine Petra – like the author the product of a "Welsh working-class family with middle-class aspirations" – as the missing female counterpart to J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield.
"I'm not a writer just to be a writer," Pearson insists. "I want to say something that really needs expressing." And if nothing compelling occurs, she adds, "I could well never write another book in my life."
Having experienced the white-hot reaction to her earlier work on being a working mother – "like opening a furnace door," she says – Pearson is confident that her targeted readers, including men, will see through the froth of the chick-lit premise. As millions of former screaming teenagers will no doubt agree, I Think I Love You exists because it needs to.