So my actual Book of the Month Club selection this month was Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly, but it’s set in the Grand Canyon, which I’m visiting later this summer so I’m putting that on hold for now. In the meantime, I borrowed a copy of another BOTM selection, Helen Hoang’s new adult romance novel, The Kiss Quotient. The draw: the heroine of the story is a woman with autism, in a gender-swapped Pretty Woman love story. Bonus: the hero is mixed-race.
About the book: Stella Lane is a phenomenal econometrician– which means she analyses what people buy, and creates algorithms to help sales companies suggest future purchases to their consumers. She’s rich, and up for a new promotion– but her love life is lacking. When her parents start making comments about grandchildren and suggesting help finding her dates, Stella decides to take matters into her own hands before they get too carried away. So she hires a male escort to help hone her skills before she approaches a coworker who she thinks might be a good match. Except Michael, her escort, quickly learns that Stella’s problem isn’t that she’s bad at sex– she just needs a partner who will be considerate of her autism. They agree to work together, each hiding secrets that the other is afraid to admit they already know about– and don’t mind at all.
I wanted to love this book the same way that I wanted to love Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and in some ways, I did love The Kiss Quotient. The writing and the story completely drew me in, even in the few places where I needed to suspend my disbelief a little more than others. I liked both Stella and Michael. I read the whole book in two days, in perfect summer weather, and it was just the sort of light, addicting drama that I was in the mood for.
And as far as I know, the autism is represented well, as it should be from an Own Voices author. I’ve seen several early reviews for this book stating that it’s helped readers discover their own autism, which is something I find intriguing and wonderful. I couldn’t resist seeing for myself the kind of strong representation that has inspired readers to share their own personal stories.
“With the labels, he might be more understanding, but he’d quit viewing her as Stella Lane, awkward econometrician who loved his kisses. In his eyes, she’d become the girl with autism. She’d be…less.”
But a couple of things bothered me increasingly as the story progressed.
The first is consent. Michael is presented as being very considerate and patient of Stella’s desires and limits. Stella thinks so, Michael thinks so, everyone thinks so. He’s repeatedly saying that he won’t do anything she’s not ready for, and in the chapters that follow his perspective (the chapters alternate between Stella’s and Michael’s stories, though always in third person) his thoughts reveal an interest in Stella for much more than her beauty or their sexual encounters. And yet, in my opinion, this is one of those cases where the telling doesn’t quite match the showing. In actuality, he’s listening to her body language instead of the words coming out of her mouth. This is less of a bother when Stella says ‘go ahead, just do it,’ and he refuses because her body is tense and uncomfortable and clearly not interested in what she says she wants him to do. But later on, once they’ve “mastered” a few skills, she expresses reluctance and he doesn’t listen because he thinks he knows what she wants/needs better than she does.
“He paused. Her words said no, but her body…”
” ‘This can be interpreted as stalking, you know.’ He ducked his head with a sheepish smile. ‘I know.’ ‘You need to stop all of this.’ ‘It’s not just a little romantic? I don’t have a lot of experience with courting, so you’ll have to excuse me if I come across too strong.’ “
No means no. And just because she agrees once does not mean Michael has permission whenever he wants it. Clearly it all works out all right in this book, but I just can’t condone that kind of behavior. The instance that bothered me the most was a kiss– Stella says she doesn’t want Michael to kiss her, and he says “I need this.” She gives in because it’s what he wants, not because she wants to be kissed. That’s not what I want to see in a romance.
The second issue for me is a lesser one, a trope that I just can’t stand though other readers might particularly enjoy it: deliberate miscommunication. This whole book is driven on the tension between Stella and Michael; they want each other, but their relationship begins as transactional, which leads them both to assume that the other isn’t emotionally invested. For hundreds of pages, they’re both thinking constantly, ‘gosh, I like this person a lot but they would never want to be with me for real,’ though the dual perspectives reveal the truth to the reader. Stella and Michael are so busy making assumptions about each other that their only obstacle to a happy ending is that they just won’t have an honest conversation. To me, that’s not compellingly tragic, it’s just frustrating. It’s predictable and boring. Why hit this same doubts over and over when any reasonable reader knows exactly how it’s going to turn out?
I suppose part of that problem stems from the predictability of the romance genre. You just can’t pick up a romance, read the introduction to the lead male and female characters and not know that their problems are going to be overcome. It’s almost entirely an emotional journey.
The emotion plays such a bit part in this story that even the little aspects that should have enhanced this book’s quirkiness were largely skipped over– like Stella’s and Michael’s professions. Stella is shown at her office primarily to display interactions with her coworkers, and provide evidence for her mental state: can she focus on her work today, or is she too distracted by Michael? The few details we do get about her work are tied into her feelings with Michael: an algorithm for underwear purchases turns into a symbol of Stella’s love. And Michael’s job seems designed to cause an awkward run-in with Stella when their relationship is at a low point– the reader is given almost no details of his work at all, even as he returns to the side of it that he’s most passionate about.
But nevertheless, I did enjoy this book. I liked seeing Stella’s and Michael’s individual difficulties, and how uniquely they combined as a perfect pair. Their romance is steamy, explicit but not too graphic, and mostly healthy. The “villain” is not flatly evil or exclusively bad. If you’re looking for a summer romance that’s new and different, The Kiss Quotient would be a great choice. It’s even a little funny, at times:
“He exhaled sharply, and his brow creased in puzzlement. ‘You don’t like French kissing?’ ‘It makes me feel like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish.’ “
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Despite how much I loved reading this book, the issues I had with the story were big enough to keep it firmly off of my favorites list, even as far as guilty pleasures go. But I liked this story and Hoang’s writing enough that I’ll definitely pick up the sequel (The Bride Test) next year, which I believe features an entirely new cast of characters in a completely different situation. A few small tweaks would’ve made The Kiss Quotient a truly fantastic read, so I have high hopes that Hoang will impress me even more the next time.
Do you pick up different genres at certain times of the year? When do you reach for a romance?
The Literary Elephant