Saturday, April 2, 2011

There's No Such Thing As "Just" A Schoolgirl Crush...

"I know an awful lot of people who don't want to know any more than they did at fifteen. I mean really know. As if they'd taken one look at the world and thought, Not me, mate..."


Well, for me it was more like the age of thirteen, but I completely understand what Allison Pearson was trying to say in her sophomore novel, "I Think I Love You." In fact, in great part the book feels like it was written directly for me, a fictional-- and perhaps slightly exaggerated-- version of a tale I have told before. It is a story of the idealism of youth, unrequited first love, and the awkwardness of adolescence-- all themes I thought I had left behind but find more and more I can't, nor do I really want to, completely shake.

The novel is centered on a young girl named Petra, aged thirteen during the bulk of the story, who has a huge crush on David Cassidy. It's a big deal for her and her friends who subscribe to a special magazine dedicated entirely to him and who end up sneaking out to an outdoor concert of his-- a concert that changes them and their love in so many ways. Her mother doesn't understand, let alone approve, so she is forced to hide it, much like she hides her greatest fears and flaws from those she is desperate to call her friends, as well. Obviously it's not just a novel about fandom-- the love for the unknown or the price of such love-- and through a secondary narrator, a young man named Bill who actually writes for that David Cassidy magazine, we see the underside to the whole business. Because it really is a business, and a magazine with no ties to the star himself capitalizes on young girls' adoration without a second thought, even going so far as to put words in his mouth through made-up letters to the fans. And I thought certain entertainment blogs had questionable journalistic integrity!

"I Think I Love You" paints such a detailed and poignant picture of Petra's life-- from her worries about her looks to her desperate desire to be one of the popular kids-- that you can't help but feel for her, even if at times you are cringing reading her actions with all of your worldly wisdom and hindsight. In the later chapters we finally get to meet the grown-up Petra, a woman who left her schoolgirl crush behind years earlier and perhaps surprisingly, but definitely thankfully, cringes at her own youthful indiscretions as she recalls them. She is a woman who just lost her mother, is going through a divorce, and has a teenage daughter with a celebrity crush of her own to contend with. But she never lost the spark that shaped her youth. Though she may have moved on from such fandom, she is not embarrassed by it; she acknowledges and embraces the fact that it was such a big part of her life and the fact that she is who she is for it.

More than any of the other themes this tale has to offer, that was the one that resonated with me most. Though I am too young to have gone through the Cassidy craze personally, the specifics aren't important. In fact, you could substitute Justin Bieber's name about the fainting and stampeding hysterics that occur at the concert, and the message would be the same. It is the fans that assign the true value to the celebrity: without the subtext we read into them or the meaning we put behind them based on our own biases and needs, their words don't matter much. We get much more than they give out of them. A simple two-line quote from our favorite celebrity can be turned into something much deeper, more powerful, more meaningful, if we need it to that badly. And Petra did. And millions of other girls, some in her class at school, some from miles and miles away, did. And I did.

Alternating narrators between the hopeful Petra, dreaming of growing up to one day be Mrs. David Cassidy, dressing in all brown because she read it was his favorite color, learning to play the cello so she could bond with him over their love of music, with the self-deprecating, at times bitter Bill was often like reading commentary from the two voices within my own head about fandom. Though I have always had a deep love of pop culture, specifically television stars, I couldn't help but have a little voice that told me it was not quite right. Maybe not taboo, but not entirely "normal" to care so much about people I don't really know and who certainly don't know me. When Bill expounds on the insanity that these girls care so much about inane details that he is ultimately making up, therefore making him the "real" Cassidy they all claim to know so well, I couldn't help but realize he is an extension of all of us-- every fan.

Whether or not the Tiger Beats and the 16 Magazines (and later the Soap Opera Digests) I devoured as a child had their own "reporters" making up facts and Q&As with the actors I pinned to my walls wasn't the issue; the fact was that I took what I wanted from their story anyway. I picked and chose the quotes and details to hang onto, to mimic, to look up to. I created a version of the star that was most pleasing to me.

Later on in her life, Petra considers why Cassidy, out of the very many potential heartthrobs. It's a question that a lot of people, Bill included, wondered. For her the answer was a simple one: he was safe. She says early on that when she would flick through the magazines it was just instinctive to flick past certain boys-- the bad boys, the ones who "might want to come down off the posters on the wall and do something." Because before she was old enough to even understand it, she was discovering the difference between lust and love-- and she was projecting her greatest wants and desires onto someone emotionally unavailable so she wouldn't-- she couldn't-- be pressured into moving too fast with any "real" relationship. But one thing was very clear: her love of Cassidy opened the door for her to look at actual boys her own age, in her own class, with even a sliver of how she looked at Cassidy.

But here's the kicker: because the first boy she ever loved wasn't real-- not really, not the version of him that she loved-- the bar was set to a place up to which no one could really ever measure. Her love for Cassidy went unrequited for years, and she accepted it, and perhaps that is why she accepted a lackluster relationship with the man she ultimately married and stayed married to for over a decade, even though he didn't seem to respect her. But at least he was physically present, and that was a step up from Cassidy in and of itself.

Maybe our earliest interactions with the opposite sex really do stay with us for the rest of our lives and still linger on all of our future, more adult relationships. And when our first love is someone on a pedestal, someone so unattainable, do we ever really have a chance? Pearson implies Petra does when she finally encounters Bill years later, when they are both adults, almost peers. But though the protagonist is a teenager during a great chunk of this book, it is not really aimed at the young adult sector, and therefore any "happily ever after" you may want to read may only come if you project your own wants and desires onto these fictional people the way that Petra did with young Mr. Cassidy for oh, so long.

1 comment:

Jenna said...

sounds like a great read...love your thoughts on it :)