Sweet And Hot, 'The Kiss Quotient' Really Adds UpAuthor Helen Hoang used her own experience on the autism spectrum to build the character of Stella, a straight-laced numbers whiz who falls for the escort she hires to help her work on relationships.
The Kiss Quotient is out this week after months of fanfare, and I'm happy to report it absolutely lives up to the buzz. It's a heartening, fun, and all-consuming story in which we fall in love with both an endearing on-the-spectrum econometrician and the sexy biracial male escort she hires to teach her everything about modern dating and sex.
Stella Lane might be a whiz with numbers, but after numerous sexual encounters go awry, she seeks out a professional escort to help her figure out what's happening. Michael Larsen — Daniel Henney lookalike and fashion designer in the making — wants to keep things purely professional; he can't afford to complicate his side hustle when his entire family is depending on him. But even non-romance readers know what happens when you mix business with pleasure — literally, in this case. Hoang's vivid and descriptive style gives readers the opportunity to live vicariously through Stella and feel all the tingling excitement as Michael very professionally seduces her.
Hoang mixes sexy and tender with panache, and she's careful in sketching out the dynamics of the romance, making sure to maintain a balance of power between Stella and Michael despite the commercial (at first) nature of their connection. Both of them have a real stake in this pseudo-relationship they've established — so you believe they really would stick their necks out for complete strangers. Hoang unpacks their insecurities, social anxiety, and the abandonment issues that have shaped them; in many ways, Stella and Michael help each other overcome these challenges, or at the very least learn to deal with them better.
That said, their cultural differences keep them from moving into real-relationship territory, at least at first. Struggling to make ends meet, Michael comes from a different economic bracket than Stella — who has a cushy job and a trust fund to boot — and it colors his belief in the longevity of their bond. Stella's introduction to his close-knit family — mostly women — and how she handles (or really can't handle) their intensity is especially noteworthy, given her social awkwardness.
She attempts to understand Michael's Vietnamese heritage in the best way she knows how, by doing research before she meets his family, but her inadvertent fixation on their financial weakness and lack of a father figure makes for a truly cringe-worthy first dinner. Likewise, Michael's introduction to her affluent (and slightly aloof) parents at a gala triggers his insecurities, forcing him to rethink their arrangement.
Stella is particularly relatable in her desire to find love and be loved; Hoang draws on her own experience with autism spectrum disorder here, weaving it so subtly and organically into Stella's character that she never seems like a token or a stereotype. Stella may be trying to brush up on her social and sexual skills, but the true nexus of her character is her pride in both herself and her success — and her flat-out refusal to let anyone use her condition to undermine her.
Hoang also explores the implications of consent and what that does to self-worth, both from the perspective of a sex worker who's been used and abused (at least emotionally) and a woman used to being neglected during sex and gradually realizing that that's not the norm. Michael goes beyond the arbitrary rules of dating, and teaches Stella to feel sexy in her own skin, voice her wants, and demand reciprocity from her partner. In turn, Stella's respect and appreciation for him boosts his self-esteem, making him feel less like a sex object and more like a person.
Hoang's debut novel is unputdownable, exceptional, and leaves a strong impression that won't wane anytime soon. I confess, it's probably not ideal reading material for your commute because you'll find yourself so immersed that you'll inevitably miss your stop — but as tempting as it may be to binge-read, it deserves to be drawn out and savored. Stella and Michael's story is deeply moving, brimming with social commentary on the stigmas surrounding sex work and mental health, and skillfully demonstrating that before we can love someone else, we must love and accept ourselves.
Kamrun Nesa is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has been featured in Bustle, HelloGiggles, PopSugar, BookBub, RT Book Reviews, and Alloy. She also contributes to USA Today's Happy Ever After romance blog.