The Kiss Quotient
by Helen Hoang
It’s high time for Stella Lane to settle down and find a husband – or so her mother tells her. This is no easy task for a wealthy, successful woman like Stella, who also happens to have Asperger’s. Analyzing data is easy; handling the awkwardness of one-on-one dates is hard. To overcome her lack of dating experience, Stella decides to hire a male escort to teach her how to be a good girlfriend.
Faced with mounting bills, Michael decides to use his good looks and charm to make extra cash on the side. He has a very firm no repeat customer policy, but he’s tempted to bend that rule when Stella approaches him with an unconventional proposal.
The more time they spend together, the harder Michael falls for this disarming woman with a beautiful mind, and Stella discovers that love defies logic.
TW: I will be discussing sexual assault in this review.
Romance is a genre I very rarely read, but when I catch wind of a new novel in the genre that has a heroine with autism written by an own voices author, I’m going to check it out.
I’m fairly certain that The Kiss Quotient is the first novel I’ve ever read with someone with autism at the centre – and the fact that another book doesn’t immediately spring to mind tells me I’m right – and the more I think about that, the more I think about how rubbish that is. There are so many people around the world on the autism spectrum and they deserve to see themselves represented in stories, and not the kind of stories that have characters that ‘can be read as being on the autism spectrum’, but characters who are aware they have autism and talk about it and acknowledge it as perfectly normal. Because it is.
I’ve seen so much discussion around anti-vaccination lately – which is ridiculous. I’m sorry if you don’t believe in vaccines, but you are willingly endangering other people who can’t get them and that’s wrong on so many levels – so this feels like a great book to read now more than ever. There are some people who don’t want to vaccinate their children because they believe vaccines cause autism, and if you’d rather have a dead child than a child with autism you don’t deserve children. End of discussion.
Anyway, on with the book!
If you don’t like reading about sex, then this book is not for you because there is a lot of it and it’s pretty explicit. If that doesn’t bother you, though, and you like your romances steamy then I think you’ll really enjoy this book.
It’s almost a gender-flipped Pretty Woman, with Stella hiring a male escort to teach her how to seduce men and be in a relationship because she understands mathematical algorithms so much better than she understands people. Her parents would love to see her settled and married, however, and Stella wants to please her parents, so she takes the most logical step she can think of and hires a teacher.
So let’s start with the things I loved.
First of all, I loved getting to know Stella and getting a glimpse into how she thinks. Obviously Stella doesn’t speak for every single person with autism, her experience won’t be the experience of every person, but because she’s been written by an own voices author I felt like I was in safe hands. She’s such a lovely character, and the way she thought and solved her problems fascinated me.
Michael, the escort she hires, I also liked a lot because his work is never shamed. He doesn’t particularly want to be making a living as an escort – which in a way I did think was a bit of a shame, I’d love to see more characters in books working in the sex industry because they want to work in that industry – but the only person who looks down on him for what he does to make ends meet is himself.
I liked the two of them together, too. A lot of their relationship is about sex, and the two of them just happening to have perfect, mouth-watering bodies did make my eyes roll a bit, but they do spend a lot of time together not having sex, and everything they do involves consent. Michael might be an escort, but Stella still checks with him every time that it’s alright to touch him, too (and rightly so).
Some of my favourite parts of the novel were the sections where Stella got to know Michael’s family; I particularly loved her relationship with Michael’s grandmother who doesn’t seem to speak English and doesn’t speak much at all anyway, and Stella enjoys her company because language sometimes confuses her. She doesn’t always understand sarcasm or sometimes she’ll ask a question that someone would rather she didn’t ask because she can’t tell they’d rather she didn’t. I’d’ve liked more of Michael’s grandmother, actually.
This novel has melodrama and misunderstandings as all great rom-coms do – and it would probably make a really fun film, come to think of it – but there were one or two things that didn’t sit quite right with me.
I didn’t go into this novel expecting a masterpiece and I didn’t get one; the writing is simple and quick to read, but it’s fun to read and, as I’ve said many times before, I don’t need every novel I read to teach me something. Sometimes I just want a fun story, and while this one is on the steamier side it is definitely that. Plus it’s so refreshing to see someone with autism at the centre of a story like this one, and I think it’s brilliant that Helen Hoang has made a place for herself in the romance genre.
That being said, there were a few sections of this book that rubbed me up the wrong way. The first was how often Michael referred to Stella as ‘his’. To be fair to Stella she didn’t seem to mind this and Michael himself isn’t an unlikeable character, but I’m a bit bored of the alpha male ‘me man, me protect woman, me provide food and shelter’ caveman heroes that we so often see in romance novels. Especially when Michael himself isn’t that typical caveman character in any other area of his life, it only seems to be where Stella is involved and he’s scared that she can’t stand up for herself despite the fact that she has a taser in her purse she’s not afraid to use.
To be fair to Hoang, Stella herself does get frustated with Michael’s attempts at protecting her. As someone with autism she fears that Michael’s looking out for her because he pities her, and she doesn’t want to be treated any differently to anyone else just because she has autism.
My bigger problem with this novel is that Stella is someone who has clearly experienced sexual assault, more than once, and I don’t think that was ever handled the way it should have been. One of Stella’s colleagues – who is a complete dickhead – kisses her without her permission once and attempts to do so again a second time, but his advances are later brushed off as nothing despite the fact that it’s clear he treats most women this way. I wasn’t satisfied with the way his behaviour was brushed under the carpet.
Similarly, Stella isn’t a virgin when she hires Michael, but she does mention that she’s ‘bad’ at sex. She isn’t bad at sex at all, she’s just had multiple partners who’ve done the do while she lay there, even when it hurt her, and then told her she was frigid. I couldn’t help wondering how much of Stella’s uncertainty about sex was less because of her autism and more because she’s actually a victim of sexual assault, and while Michael does a really good job of putting her first during their encounters and telling her that being forced into sex isn’t what sex should be, I still don’t think this was ever addressed thoroughly.
That being said, as I mentioned before, I did love how much of Stella and Michael’s relationship was about consent, and how it worked both ways. That Stella so often asked Michael if it was alright for her to touch or kiss him, however, made me think that her own past experiences should have been addressed more than they were.
All that aside, if you like romance and you don’t mind your steamier books, I do recommend picking this up and I think you’ll enjoy it. I think it’s great to see someone with autism right at the centre of a story like this one and it’ll be interesting to see what Hoang does next.