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(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

When Allison Pearson's first novel "I Don't Know How She Does It," was published in 2002, it made Pearson, who's a columnist for the London Daily Telegraph, the instant queen of Mommy Lit, a branch of women's fiction devoted to the thousand and one ways frenetic modern middle-class mothers can make themselves feel inadequate. Pearson's long-awaited second novel has just been published. It's called "I Think I Love You."

And book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's a welcome retreat away from mommy land, fleeing backward into a refuge of a teenaged girl's poster-lined bedroom.

Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Anyone who's 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 night. An exhausted 30-something mom is busy distressing a cake she'd picked up earlier at a supermarket, after her child sandbagged her with the news that they were scheduled to bring in snack to school the next day. The mom desperately wants the cake 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 a 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 so cute and so 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 power of cliques.

(Reading) 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.

As affecting as the first part of Pearson's novel is, it's the second part, set in 1998, when Petra is nearing 40 and limping through a divorce, that really soars. It turns out that she and her friend Sharon, who's become a great bawdy broad, really did win that David Cassidy quiz years ago, although the congratulatory letter never got to her.

Through a loopy sequence of events, they get to go, now, to Vegas and meet their weathered idol. It's a simultaneously joyous and terrifying and melancholy pilgrimage. Youth has vanished, after all, and everything's changed, except for the one timeless question that Petra and Sharon keep asking themselves almost up to the minute they enter David Cassidy's hotel suite: what should we wear?

The poignancy and wry insight into the passionate yearnings of adoring teens and the sadder but wiser women they become makes "I Think I Love You" as infectious as one of those bubblegum standards that David Cassidy used to sing during episodes of "The Partridge Family."

I was about five years beyond being susceptible to Cassidy mania, but nonetheless, I think I love Allison Pearson's "I Think I Love You."

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can read an excerpt of "I Think I Love You" on our Website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of song, "Girl, You Make My Day")

THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY (Singing group): (Singing) I can't start my day, girl, without thinking about ya. I wake up in the morning and you're there on my mind. I've been dreaming about ya.

You start feelings running through my head...

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Girl, You Make My Day")

THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY: (Singing) Whoa, girl, you make my day. You're the smile on my face; you're the look in my eyes. You're every breath that I take.

Whoa, girl, you make my day...

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GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with journalist Charles Sennott. He just returned from Tahrir Square where he was filming a documentary on the revolution, which will be shown next Tuesday on the PBS series, "Frontline." It focuses on a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was one of the leaders of the youth movement.

Join for the next FRESH AIR.

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