I absolutely, wholeheartedly adored The Kiss Quotient! It’s the first romance I’ve ever read with an autistic heroine (Stella has Asperger’s), and I’m always on the lookout for Asian representation in books (the hero Michael is half Vietnamese, and the author’s surname is Hoang), so this book caught my eye almost immediately as one I wanted to check out.
And I’m incredibly glad I did. From the first few pages where Stella stresses out about dating because she doesn’t enjoy touching, and she really doesn’t enjoy sex, I was intrigued at how Hoang would craft a romance around this. I also loved Stella as a heroine because she’s an econometrist is such a wonderfully nerdy profession I didn’t even know existed. Basically, she analyzes market trends, and there’s a great moment where love literally is a factor in her calculations. (Hoang somehow succeeds in making this not as cheesy as it sounds.)
Then we meet Michael. He works as a male escort to pay off his mother’s medical bills, and he also trains as a martial artist. He also has a day job and career dream that he put on hold to support his family, and I won’t reveal what it is here because the reveal in the book is just too beautifully done to spoil, but seriously, this guy just got me in all the feels. Stella decides to hire Michael to teach her how to have sex, so that she can handle actual relationships and, well, things take off from there.
I absolutely adored Stella and Michael and their love story. They both felt real, and they both had all these vulnerabilities that only the other person truly got. There were misunderstandings that drove them apart, but these never felt manufactured. Rather, they were rooted in insecurities that Hoang did a masterful job in setting up throughout, so that when things came to a head, we could understand why Stella and Michael reacted the way they did, even as we wanted nothing more than for them to move past their issues.
I also loved the secondary characters, particularly Michael’s family. His mom, grandmother and sisters all had such vivid personalities I felt like I was at the family dinner with them, and I could just picture the siblings growing up together. His cousin Quan is awesome with his tattooed, bad boy aura, and I’d personally love to see him star in a romance of his own. I also love how complex Michael’s mom’s feelings still are for the dad who abandoned the family, and I especially love the scene where she confronted Michael with a harsh, much-needed dose of reality about his hang-ups in pursuing a relationship with Stella.
The lovemaking scenes were off-the-charts hot. Part of it is Stella’s initial fear of being touched, and Michael’s incredible gentleness towards her, so that even when things got more intense, lovemaking still feels like the more accurate term than sex. Their first night together, even things like French kissing and opening the top button of her shirt set Stella off. The way Michael eased her into greater intimacy, while still very much respecting her boundaries, was beautifully done, and resulted in an incredibly sensual scene that was ultimately chaste, yet still somehow felt sexier than if they’d gone further. Consent is sexy, and this chapter shows just how sexy it can be.
Finally, I thought Hoang did a good job incorporating Stella’s autism into the story. Apart from her aversion to touch and her sensory sensitivities, Stella also occasionally messes up in social situations and sometimes needs to take a break from public spaces. What I love most is that Stella is never treated as an object of pity because of her autism. Despite her fears to the contrary, Michael’s only response to her autism never feels like pity but simply consideration, for example by toning down sensory stimuli or by giving her plenty of advance warning.
There’s a particularly powerful scene where she first meets Michael’s family, and, overwhelmed by the noise and all the new faces, she inadvertently says some very rude and inappropriate things. I cringed the entire time reading it, mostly feeling sorry for Michael and his mother, who kept trying to smooth things over, but the scene also made me realize how unaware Stella was of how her words were being perceived by others. It’s only later, when the night ends in tears and Stella’s had a moment to remove herself from the situation and reflect, that she realizes she messed up and feels terrible about it. She goes out of her way to apologize to Michael’s mom, and all is well, but this scene stuck with me, and I love how she and Michael are able to work through it.
Overall, this has earned its place as one of my favourite books of all time. I’m a huge fan of Hoang’s writing, and I’m now incredibly excited for The Bride Test to come out in 2019!
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.