Review: The Kiss Quotient
Book by Helen Hoang
The Kiss Quotient has been all over the place (well, if you happen to frequent places that are always talking about new books). Going in, I had assumed this was a quirky women's fiction about a woman with autism trying to find love. When I finally found the book in Powell's romance section, it became a bit clearer: this was going to sexy.
And it is. After constant pressure from her mother, Stella decides to hire an escort to practice being in a relationship. She's nervous that because of her autism she'll never be good at intimacy, at sex, at love. It's a premise you can't analyze too hard, or it might induce some eye rolls. But on the surface, it feels more like a sweet story about a woman who learns the need to accept herself for who she is.
When we first meet Michael (the escort), we know he has some "dark" past that's "haunting" him. Ok, I could ignore that stereotype, because his and Stella's first interactions are both steamy and thoughtful. Michael takes his time with her, more concerned with making her feel safe and comfortable than completing his "job." He stops when he senses her tense up. He communicates with her when she shuts down. Even though she paid him for a service, he recognizes that she's not ready for it. So he stops.
I applaud the author's attempt at making this a feminist romance. Stella is the one who hired an escort. She took sex into her control. Michael, the man, is the one being objectified for a singular use. The issue, though, is that the theme quickly falls apart as their relationship progresses. Just as soon as Stella's in control, she becomes dependent on Michael. And Michael becomes possessive of her.
Michael's character goes from pleasing and charming to jealous and overprotective; we're given insight into his rage-filled inner monologue about wanting to make men who are looking at Stella "bloody." Stella also seems to fall apart without Michael around, only feeling right and accepted and true when with him.
Meanwhile, mentions of Michael's dark past are continually threaded throughout the story, reminding us that something is coming — and it unfortunately never pays off in a way that warrants all the foreboding hints. The whole plot point could've been edited out.
This book began with such a promising premise, and I wish that romance didn't so soon degrade into obsession. It's there that characters fall into their gender tropes, where a man claims a woman as his, and a woman is nothing without that claim.
I still read this book, and did it quickly. Even with its problems, the narrative was enticing, and many scenes felt vulnerable and honest. Until about halfway in, it had the potential to veer toward a story about Stella accepting her autism, and embracing limitations rather than trying to fix them. (Oh, rest assured, she may have autism, but she's still beautiful and sexy and skinny — sigh.) But once the story pivoted toward Michael's issues, it felt a lot less like love and more like dependence — these characters relying on each other to fix their problems rather than facing them together.
I'm happy to see an attempt at introducing new types of characters, and my hope is that we'll see not only more of them, but we'll also re-write the overused constructs that tell their stories.