Desert Isle Keeper
The Kiss Quotient
If you’ve been dialed into Romancelandia over the last few months, then I’m sure you’ve been hearing a lot of buzz around début author Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient – and I’m here to tell you the book lives up to the hype.
It feels a bit like a gender-swapped take on Pretty Woman, but in addition to being sweet and sexy, it’s also been modernized and updated with the inclusion of a mixed race-hero – who works as an escort for an altruistic reason – and an autistic heroine who works in a STEM field. Not only is this novel refreshing in a #ownvoices and diverse way, but it’s refreshing for the sole fact that, stripped down to the basics, it’s the woman who is more successful, brainy, and has the cash to make her the perfect shiny package. Everything else isn’t just a bonus but instead makes the fantasy feel like reality. The characters are layered, flawed, and perfectly imperfect.
Stella Lane is a genius when it comes to econometrics but when it comes to social interactions and worse, dating, she’s not exactly getting full marks; she’s barely even making the grade. Having Asperger’s means she’s honest when so many people prefer pretty prevarications, sarcasm totally misses its mark, and as a result she finds solace in spreadsheets to keep from engaging in potentially disastrous conversation. French kissing makes her think of pilot fish cleaning a shark’s teeth, she’s uncomfortable with casual touches; and the handful of times she’s had sex have been awful for her (and she believes for the guy, as well). When an offhand remark suggests her problem might be due to lack of practice, her problem-solving brain finds a solution : hire someone. If she can be taught, surely she will then be able to apply her learned skills to real-life situations. Easy.
Michael Phan has a pretty face and a gorgeous body, but no heart for sleeping with strangers. Once a week for three years he’s been selling himself in order to make enough money to crawl out of massive debt, support his mother – who is recovering from chemotherapy treatments – and hold his large family of strong-willed sisters together in the wake of his father’s abandonment. Michael’s issues aren’t on the spectrum, but he’s just as insecure as the woman who ends up hiring him. A woman he is surprised hired him at all, as she’s a quirky, brainy, beautiful woman who inspires real attraction, negates his need for his own fantasy to get through the assignation, and yet requires gentle handling and patience.
The concept of this romance is adorable and the switched gender roles make it refreshing and fun, but the strength of Hoang’s story is in her characters. Stella’s personality is so vibrant. Her anxieties, her need for routine and dislike of overstimulation, none of these are blown out of proportion or used to create drama and that’s all thanks to the author and her familiarity with Stella’s circumstances. You feel for her, her uneasiness, her struggle, but you never pity her. She is strong and smart so unaware of the fact she isn’t all that different from what is defined as ‘normal’ even if there are labels that apply to her and not others. Michael is a devastatingly sexy hottie with just enough baggage to make him feel unworthy of Stella but he devotes patience and possessiveness in equal measure in their every interaction. We also see a lot of Michael’s family, his mother and grandmother, his various sisters, and his cousins Quan and Khai – the latter of whom is getting his own book. I can’t wait to learn more about him – you’ll understand why once you’ve read this one! — and I loved how the overwhelming family dynamics that were used to introduce them also reflected back so much of Stella’s character, and just what it meant to have her particular autistic characteristics.
Honestly the only thing that doesn’t feel completely solid is the other interested romantic party on Stella’s side; Phillip could have been used differently, or maybe better developed. We aren’t really supposed to be concerned about him swooping in to steal Stella away, he’s not a real threat to the romance, but he’s used more as a battering ram instead of a subtle potential for conflict and it just quite work. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Stella’s parents, although I can see why the focus was on Michael’s family instead of our heroine’s as his are more layered and interesting, while Stella’s are more cookie-cutter. This isn’t a criticism, really. Their personalities are just meant to be more straight-forward but I’d have liked more moments of tenderness with her mother.
As for everything else? The swoons are seriously topnotch — and kind of unexpected. I went into The Kiss Quotient expecting a quirky rom-com and while there’s definitely a bit of comedy, it was more of a scorcher than I thought it would be. There was some definite face-fanning required and every time I tried to sneak a page during my day job, I had to slam the kindle shut for fear the heat coming off the pages would make its presence known on my cheeks. Oh yeah. It was hot. But it’s also a slow burn in the sense that Stella has to explore her own limitations, demolish or determine boundaries, and Michael is with her every step of the way to ensure she’s aroused, yes, but also comfortable. There are no hazy grey-area moments of dubious consent or situations where she’s brave enough to push through overwhelming discomfort. You wouldn’t think having to repeatedly hit pause on the sexytimes would be, well, sexy – but let me tell you, readers, respect and patience is my new favourite kink and Michael definitely deserves all his five star ratings. But beyond the scorching aspect of the romance, this story is also adorable, sweet, and though not overly emotionally wrought by drama, I still found myself choking back the occasional bout of tears. Helen Hoang has written characters that resonate and you feel for them, feel what they feel; and I found it hard to look away or put them out of my mind. This is a stunning début and I’m so looking forward to reuniting with her words, and some of these characters, in her companion novel to come.
The Kiss Quotient has a home on my Keeper shelf and I think it’ll look great on yours, too!