As a gripping tale of father-daughter conflict, The Daughter Merger is outstanding in many respects. As a romance, it isn't quite as compelling.
David Whitcomb is divorced with a thirteen-year-old daughter, Claire. Clare has recently come to live with David after her alcoholic mother proved unable to care for her. Once David and Claire were close. Now they are at each other's throats much of the time, and Claire has run away several times, planning to make her way back to California and her mother.
Claire's latest attempt at escape is foiled by a kindly truck driver who returns her to David. Claire makes plans to run away again, but when she confides in her best friend, Linnet Blanchet (I never could figure out how that's supposed to be pronounced), Linnet comes up with a plan. Maybe Claire can stay at her house. After all, her mom is a widow, they have room, and it would be cool to have a sister.
Grace Blanchet, after some hesitation, offers to take Claire in on a temporary basis to give the Claire and her father some space. Perhaps the cycle of pain and anger can be broken if they have some breathing room. In David, Grace sees many of the same traits of her late husband (who is first Roger, then Phillip; come on, proofreaders). He's intense, driven, dedicated to his work, and obviously puts his daughter second in line.
However, he's also very attractive. And David, who hadn't really noticed the rather plain Grace up till this point, finds that he's drawn to her.
The animosity and anguish between Claire and David is very well done. The author absolutely nailed the persona of a thirteen-year-old; Claire is self-absorbed, dramatic, and sure that she could fix everything if her mean dad would just let her have her way. If she could go back and take care of her Mom, then she'd have somebody to really love her, as her dad obviously doesn't. At the same time Claire is, deep down, painfully aware of her mother's shortcomings.
David is portrayed as a caring father who is at his wits' end. He loves Claire, but gone is the little girl who adored her daddy, and in her place is an angry whirlwind. He doesn't know how to handle her or reach out to her, and his relief and frustration at having to lean on Grace for parenting lessons is palpable. I was absorbed in the unfolding relationship between Claire and David.
Less absorbing or convincing is the relationship between Grace and David. The story was sharply focused on David and Claire for the first third to half of the book; the shift to David and Grace felt forced, as though an editor reminded the author, "this is supposed to be a romance". Grace comes across as a caring parent, but a bit sanctimonious at times and very quick to blame David for things that are out of his control. I felt her treatment of David at the climax was unfair and judgmental; the guy has a demanding, high-stress job, and she wasn't able to recognize that and accept it. Instead, she plays the blame game of "you don't put your daughter first", even though she's admitted that David is a far more loving and attentive father than her late husband. Well, sometimes people can't put their families first, even if they want to. And where is it written that kids must automatically go to the head of the priority line at all times?
However, there's much to recommend about The Daughter Merger. The tentative, fragile relationship between David and Claire was poignant, and Ms. Johnson has a clever way with her phrasing and dialogue. I'd buy her next book in a quick minute. These folks sounded real. If you've ever had to cope with a difficult teenager, this book will strike a deep chord.