Review x 2: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Dear Ms. Hoang,
There’s been a lot of pre-publication buzz about your debut, The Kiss Quotient, and it sounded interesting and different, so I requested an ARC from the publisher.
Stella Lane, a wealthy econometrician with Asperger’s, has struggled with her past romantic experiences. Sex has never gone well for her and she believes her autism, as well as her inexperience, are to blame. Now her mother is pressuring her to get married and give her grandchildren. When Stella’s co-worker, Philip, rudely advises her to get better at sex, Stella decides to take his advice and hires an escort.
Michael Phan has had to drop out of a promising career in fashion to help his mother when she got cancer, and he not only helps at his mom’s dry cleaning/ alterations shop, but (without his mom’s knowledge) pays off her medical bills by escorting once a week. He and Stella meet through an assignation set up by his escorting agency, and Michael, who is getting tired of escorting, tries to prepare himself by conjuring his “hot for teacher” fantasy.
As soon as he and Stella meet, though, the need for fantasies disappears. Michael is astonished that this relatively young, pretty, and sweet girl has hired him for the night. He doesn’t believe Stella when she tells him she’s terrible at sex.
Soon enough, though, he runs into difficulties with seducing her. Stella is too much in her head and they set up another date. Eventually, they conclude that what Stella really needs isn’t an escort, but a practice boyfriend, and although a bad past experience with an obsessive client makes Michael hesitant about it, he agrees.
Stella meets Michael’s mother and sisters who think she’s his real girlfriend, and as she gets to know him she falls hard for him and he for her. But she believes he won’t love her if he realizes she has Asperger’s, and he believes that if she learns who his dad is, she’ll lose all interest in him.
In the hands of a different author, this premise could have been a train wreck, but in yours, it’s charming. Stella and Michael’s attraction is tastefully handled, and they are both endearing characters, so kind and sweet to one another that it was almost too much. But only almost.
While it’s true that outside the Asperger’s and the escorting, they had no flaws to speak of, those two issues gave them plenty to work out. A personality flaw or two would have perhaps been piling on too much. I did feel, though, that their insecurities clouded their view of the relationship for a little too long.
Spoiler (Spoiler): Show
The secondary characters are mostly interesting, as well—I especially liked Michael’s mother, who struggles with cancer and, after a disastrous first encounter with Stella, quickly warms to her, his cousin, Quan, who is so clearly in Michael’s corner, his sister, Janie, who, like Stella, is interested in economics, and to a lesser extent, Stella’s mom, who surprised me toward the end.
There are a couple of villains, that obsessive former client of Michael’s and Philip, Stella’s co-worker, that come across as a bit one dimensional, but that’s a small flaw in an otherwise lovely book.
A scene in which Stella first meets Michael’s family and things go awry was perhaps my favorite moment in the book, because it felt so true to life. The other scene I loved is one in which Stella gets a glimpse of Michael’s financial burdens—it really got to me.
Michael and Stella are appealing characters and the book is riveting. This being an #ownvoices book, it’s not surprising that Stella’s struggles with Asperger’s are convincing, but they also add a great deal of freshness because they affect the way Stella experiences the world.
Further, I liked that we see the characters at their jobs, and I don’t mean the escorting. Michael’s designs, his sewing, and Stella’s econometrics projects all make an appearance here. Stella is not only good at her job but dedicated to it—perhaps too much so.
Michael, meanwhile, has lost confidence in his ability to do the work he loves, but it’s obvious he yearns for more than his current job at his mom’s dry cleaning /alterations business offers, and would love nothing more than to quit escorting.
Another thing I really appreciated in the book was the role reversal of Stella being the one with more money. In the romance genre, the hero is so often wealthy while the heroine is not. Here that trope is turned on its head, but Michael still comes across as a good match for Stella. He has so much to offer her just as she does for him.
All in all, The Kiss Quotient was a truly lovely book and one I recommend. A-.
PS After this review was written, I came across this #ownvoices review at Love in Panels in which the reviewer, Andrea Marks-Joseph, took issue with the way Stella felt about her Asperger’s. I think it’s more than fair to stay that Stella’s attitude toward it was one of internalized ableism. When I asked myself why it didn’t bug me to the same degree ableism frequently does in books, I came up with a couple of answers. First, Stella never comes across as self-pitying. Second, Michael and Quan have a relative with Asperger’s so they are familiar with it and never view Stella as in any way less than. For this reason I didn’t read the novel and its authorial voice as sharing Stella’s attitude. Andrea’s review makes good points, though.