“How did one not obsess over something wonderful? How did one like something a reasonable amount?” — Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient
What do you do when your mother keeps nagging you about grandchildren, but your social skills are not the best and you struggle to get involved in a serious relationship? You hire a male escort, of course.
At least, that’s how Stella Lang understands it in Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient. Living with ASD, Stella has trouble making intimate connections, often misunderstanding social cues and struggling to communicate her needs. In her adult life, Stella has never been able to find a man that would stick around and want her for more than sex. The few encounters she’s had have left her disappointed with the prospect of love and wanting where her sexual needs are concerned.
Stella loves math and sees everything through a spectrum of logic and reason. In this same vein, she sees herself as the problem: She must be bad at sex. If she becomes good at sex, then she’ll be able to keep a man interested long enough to fall in love with her, form a family, and finally give her mother those grandbabies that she keeps quipping about.
Enter Michael Phan, the male escort Stella’s hired to teach her how to have sex. At first, Michael thinks her request is odd, but he’s done weirder things in his time as an escort, and a job is a job. He needs the money and Stella’s more than willing to pay. And if he admits it to himself, he finds her just attractive enough that it just feels like a win-win for him.
Indubitably, a deeper attraction begins to develop on both sides as Michael and Stella grow increasingly intimate with each other. The job evolves from sex lessons to relationship lessons and Michael and Stella pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend, going as far as meeting each other’s parents and living together for a while.
However, Stella keeps the truth of her condition concealed, afraid of eliciting pity in Michael. Michael, also has a dark family secret that he keeps from Stella, terrified that if she finds out she’ll think differently of him. This miscommunication leads to misunderstandings in their motives. When the couple feels forced to end their charade earlier than planned, the roots of these secrets feeding their inner turmoil, leading each to believe that the other could never be truly interested.
Hoang masterly balances emotional depth with humor in her debut novel. She’s careful to nuance the silliness of everyday life in relationships while also reminding us that this is a story about two underdogs who feel undeserving of love. What’s more, Hoang handles the topic of ASD tactfully and artfully. She gives us insight into a disorder that is often talked about but is often misunderstood. Through her own experience with ASD, she takes special care into slowly divulging, through Stella’s thoughts (as she fusses over whether she needs to bring both flowers and chocolates to meet Michael’s mom, or becomes overstimulated by the loud music and lights in a club, or even the insessant bickering of Michael’s sisters) how an ASD brain works.
What’s truly inspiring about The Kiss Quotient is the running theme of consent. The story basically reiterates over and over that consent is sexy. Through every sexual encounter that Michael and Stella have, they are at every moment, considerate of the feelings of one another, never willing to go further than the other is ready to go. Hoang’s talent resounds in that all this consent never gets in the way of the story – if anything, it adds to it.
The Kiss Quotient is thoroughly enjoyable. Something fans of romance and anyone looking for a light read with depth might want to check out. A read worth investing your time in, and a romance with characters that are rooted in real life and well-rounded. Though the premise of hiring a male escort to learn how to be better at sex might sound a bit outlandish (or does it?), Hoang’s down-to-earth prose ensures that every word rings plausible, ensnaring our imagination and capturing our hearts.