By Any Other Name

Mother of the Year

A Sheriff in Tennessee

The Daddy Quest by Lori Handeland
(Harl. Super. #1151, $5.25, PG) ISBN 0-373-71151-4
When I pick up a romance with a secret baby, man-doesn’t-know-he-is-a-father plot, I often wonder if the book will follow the stereotypical pattern: Single mom runs into her child’s father, who discovers that he is a father, then wrestles with feelings of anger and distrust. As its title suggests, The Daddy Quest centers around this plot, which made me curious about how Handeland would create a fresh story. Once I started reading, I discovered that this book is problematic for reasons unrelated to a formulaic storyline.

Former exotic dancer Nicole Houston lives in Las Vegas with her daughter, 13-year-old Rayne. Fourteen years ago, Nicole’s one-night stand with Aaron Luchetti changed her life in several ways. Now a single mother, she lives and works at Mercy House, a halfway house for women. Nicole never told Aaron about Rayne because she didn’t want to interfere with his plan to become a priest. Rayne has grown up believing that her father was dead.

The quest begins when Rayne flips through the pages of Nicole’s Bible and a card falls out. Seeing Aaron’s name, Rayne dials the number and learns that the father she believed was dead is very much alive. Her reaction: she decides to run away and find her father. She takes six-year-old Tim (a boy she found on the streets) with her.

When Nicole realizes that Rayne is missing, she calls the police. They don’t provide much help. Then Nicole notices that Rayne found the card, so she calls Aaron. He flies to Las Vegas while Rayne and Tim ride the bus to Illinois. Eventually, everyone winds up at Aaron’s Illinois farm, where the bulk of the story takes place.

I enjoy some aspects of The Daddy Quest. First, there’s Janet, the woman who owns Mercy House. She’s more than a typical confidante to Nicole; she’s an intriguing character in her own right. If she ever opens her 900 number, I’ll be one of the first to call for advice. Scenes with Janet sparkle with humor. In chapter one, Nicole tells Janet that she doesn’t date. Janet replies, “Not healthy.” Nicole follows up with this: “So I’ll eat more broccoli.”

I also appreciate the twist Handeland gives the story. Praise heaven, the author avoids the stereotypes sometimes seen in the secret baby plot. While Aaron is surprised, he doesn’t explode with anger about the news that he’s a father, nor does he wrestle with trust issues for the rest of the novel.

Unfortunately, there were many more things about The Daddy Quest that didn’t work. Take Rayne, for example. This 13-year-old girl has depended on and confided in Nicole all of her life. But instead of confronting Nicole when she learns her father is alive, Rayne says nothing. She doesn’t ask questions — she just runs. This action moves the plot forward, but it doesn’t seem realistic. She’s also a wonder child: skilled enough to get herself and six-year-old Tim to Illinois via bus with minimum trouble and smart enough to recognize that Tim has ADHD. A child who has grown up in a halfway house may have more street smarts than other children, but I wasn’t convinced that she could make the trip so easily. More strange is the fact that Rayne doesn’t realize or care that Nicole might be worried about her. She’s understandably upset about her mother’s lie, but after more than two hundred pages of “me, me, me” with no sign of affection for Nicole, I didn’t want to spend another five minutes (or five pages) with her.

Nicole and Aaron’s love story isn’t much better. It’s clear that they share a physical attraction; what’s not clear is what else makes them a good match. Apparently they never got over each other after they conceived Rayne, but why? Their mutual interest in saving people doesn’t give them enough common ground to build or sustain a relationship. And that’s all they seem to have, except for their past and their desire for each other. This, combined with the turn-on-a-dime ending, made this book a frustrating read.

In the end, The Daddy Quest was a disappointment. While it offers glimpses of humor, they aren’t enough to recommend embarking on this quest.

--Alyssa Hurzeler

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