Saturday 7 July 2018

#CBR10 Book 52: "The Kiss Quotient" by Helen Hoang

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Stella Lane loves mathematics and equations and is extremely good at her job, which involves creating algorithms to predict customer purchases, It makes her highly valued by her employer and she makes more money than she has any idea what to do with. Stella has Asperger's, which means she's on the Autism Spectrum, and has not had a lot of success when dating in the past. She believes this is her fault (it's not, she's clearly dated some total loser creeps). So when her mother declares that she would like grandchildren, Stella tries to methodically figure out how to get better. How does one practise dating? Hire a tutor, of course.

Stella engages the services of escort Michael Phan. Half Vietnamese, half Swedish, Michael works as an escort every Friday night to help pay for his mother's medical bills (a side of his life he keeps completely secret from his family). He has a rule that he never sees the same woman more than once, but Stella isn't like most of his other clients and he is intrigued by her offer to teach her how to succeed in a romantic relationship, even though he's a little taken aback by her lesson plans (complete with boxes to tick once she's completed an objective).

Soon, what began as a business arrangement becomes something more emotional, but both Stella and Michael have baggage that make it difficult for them to fully commit to the other. Can they move past the negative experiences of their pasts to find a future together?

I've seen The Kiss Quotient mentioned on a lot of romance review blogs, both on "Can't wait to read" lists and generally very favourably reviewed. It's rare enough that romance feature South Asian characters, or feature a positive portrayal of sex work, but neuro-atypical characters are even fewer and far between. Way back in 2011, I read Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, which features a hero who is Autistic, and I seem to recall that was a pretty big deal at the time. That book didn't work for me at all, for a number of reasons, but since this one came so highly recommended and I wanted to cannonball on something hopefully good, I picked this up.

Earlier this week, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books featured a guest review from a woman who is also Autistic and absolutely loved this book, because she recognised so much of her own life in it. In her afterword, the author explains that it was while doing research for this book that she discovered that she herself in fact had Asperger's, and that it can manifest very differently in men and women. Because so much of the research and literature is about men, it can be more difficult for women to be diagnosed. Hence Ms Hoang was a grown woman when she realised that she was neuro-atypical and that there was a good reason for all her little "oddities".

Stella believes herself to be cold and unlovable. Because of her previous bad dating experiences, she thinks kissing is "like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by a pilot fish". She's not a virgin, but has never had an enjoyable sexual experience. So it should come as no surprise that one session, even with a considerate and very seasoned escort, is not going to make her comfortable with intimacy. She's very wary of being pitied and doesn't want special allowances made for her, so she's adamant that Michael not find out about her diagnosis. Even as their relationship progresses, Stella believes that all their stumbling blocks are because of her, because she doesn't know about Michael's emotional baggage.

Michael's father is not a nice guy. He was clearly a serial womaniser, but Michael's mother kept forgiving him the cheating, until one day he stole all their savings and ran off. Then Michael's mother got cancer and if Michael hadn't stepped up, his family would have lost their home and dry cleaning business. No one in his family knows that his mother didn't have insurance, and that Michael has been working as an escort every Friday for the last three years to pay for her treatment. After he got a particularly obsessive client who started stalking him, he introduced the "one night" only rule, which he goes back on once he meets Stella and is intrigued by her proposal. Michael is the only man in a large family of women. Because he is handsome and charming like his father, he believes that he too is only one bad judgement away from becoming a user and a manipulator. Once his relationship with Stella develops, he believes himself completely unworthy of her, not just because of his escort job, but because she's tons smarter than him, from a wealthy background, is much more highly educated and makes a ton of money. He's not threatened by this in the slightest, in fact, he's super impressed by her, but can't possibly see a future for her with someone as unworthy as him.

Michael's low self esteem and worries about turning out like his dad are in fact much more detrimental to their relationship than Stella's sometimes strange behaviour and insecurities about her condition. While I very much enjoyed the book, the time it took him to understand just how good he and Stella could be together and how totally NOT his dad he was, made me annoyed. I also wish Stella's co-worker, who clearly doesn't even notice her until she's dating someone else had been less of a creep, but these stories do tend to need a villain, right?

Fun fact, as I don't watch K-dramas at all, I had to google Daniel Henney (apparently Michael looks a lot like him). As a mental image for the hero, it certainly worked well. If you want to read an enjoyable romance with a kind of gender-swapped Pretty Woman storyline, featuring a neuro-atypical South Asian heroine working in STEM, this is the book for you. I'm already looking forward to Ms Hoang's next book, which will feature Michael's Autistic cousin.

Judging a book by its cover: I like this cover, with the teal background colour. While I don't necessarily like people kissing on my book covers, it works for me here because the characters are drawn, not in a photograph. They're also stylised enough that the depictions in no way ruin my mental image of what the characters in the book look like. Not sure I like the yellow font for the name of the book, but that's a minor niggle.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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