Helen Hoang‘s debut novel, The Kiss Quotient, caught my eye every time I entered a book store for several months before I finally gave in and bought it. I don’t normally read romance novels, but this one – with its clever title and unique plot – proved irresistible.
The Kiss Quotient tells the story of Stella, an intelligent and successful woman who happens to be terrible at relationships. She has Asperger’s syndrome, and as such, she’s rather sensitive to touch – and as relationships can involved quite a lot of touching, they’re something she’s avoided. But when her mother pushes her to start dating and maybe get married and have kids, Stella decides to do something about her romantic hesitations. She hires a biracial male escort named Michael to teach her how to kiss and be good in bed. Indeed, she believes that if she can become good at sex, she’ll be able to succeed in a relationship. Eventually, their sex education turns into a practice relationship, with Michael acting as Stella’s fake boyfriend.
Or course, this being a romance novel, Stella and Michael have a hard time adhering to the rules they set out for their professional partnership. They each develop feelings for each other, but they also have their own secrets and perceived failings holding them back. While Stella doesn’t divulge her autism, Michael hides parts of his family’s history and personal issues.
The Kiss Quotient starts off incredibly fast, jumping right into the action and the sex scenes far sooner than expected. Ironically, this book could have used a bit more… foreplay. Adding another chapter or two of buildup would have helped immensely with the pacing, characterization, and believability early on.
Despite the rushed beginning, though, both Stella and Michael are likable characters. With its alternating points of view, we quickly get to know each of them. We understand how Stella thinks and feels about things, and see how autism affects her perception. Similarly, we get to see how Michael reacts to her, understanding and being patient with Stella, even without knowing about her autism.
The novel is commendable for its depiction of an autistic character, and moreover, an autistic character at the center of a romantic, sometimes erotic story. In fact, Helen Hoang is autistic herself, having been diagnosed after researching for and writing this novel. That it’s an #OwnVoices work makes The Kiss Quotient that much more nuanced and authentic.
It’s also nice to see some of the gender roles flipped. In The Kiss Quotient, Stella is the one who’s excellent at math, highly successful in her career as an econometrician, earning tons of money, and hiring escorts. She struggles with intimacy and emotions, but she’s willing to learn. Meanwhile, Michael is a fashion designer (albeit one who hasn’t yet found success), he earns far less than Stella, and he’s very in tune with his emotions. And while these flipped gender norms could pose major issues for different types of characters, they don’t for Stella and Michael. For all their issues, insecurities about masculinity or femininity are not among them.
Instead, their biggest hurdle is open, honest communication. Plots that hinge on miscommunications – or a complete lack of communication – are a bit overdone and frustrating. It’s so much more compelling to come up with a more profound problem keeping people from their goals. That is one drawback for The Kiss Quotient, but since it’s a debut novel, and a romance, no less, we can let it slide this time.
The Kiss Quotient is pretty romantic, but it’s also surprisingly steamy. There are plenty of sex scenes here – some that take up the full chapter – and they go into a fair amount of detail. That may have been obvious, given the premise of the book. Luckily, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, it’s relieving to see how much care the author took in making this story consensual – always. As Michael works to teach Stella about kissing and sex, he always makes sure to ask her permission before proceeding and always checks in with how she’s doing. He makes it very clear that he will not do anything that she doesn’t want. It’s commendable that such care went into making The Kiss Quotient as virtuous as it can be.
As a romance, The Kiss Quotient is fairly light, even with its more serious themes of autism, money struggles, family shame, and family illness. It’s an enjoyable read that leaves the reader rooting for the characters – and wishing they’d just speak more honestly with each other! The book has its weaknesses – the rushed beginning, predictable communication issues, and overuse of sex scenes among them – but it’s also a charming and important read. It helps to break the stigma against autism and helps readers better understand those with Asperger’s syndrome. It opens up the doors to more autistic characters – in romances and in books overall. The positives outweigh the negatives here. The Kiss Quotient is a delightful book, and as the first in a trilogy, it will be exciting to read more from Helen Hoang.