Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

 ๐Ÿ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Chick Lit. For more info on this challenge, click here. ๐Ÿ’™

I think the last time I saw a contemporary romance getting this much attention, it was Sally Thorne's THE HATING GAME (in fact, initially, I thought this was a sequel to THE HATING GAME, since the colors of the book covers and the art style were so similar). When I read the summary (and looked at the author's name), I realized, of course, that it was a totally different book. But it still sounded like a book that I'd read before...

Last year, I read a book for a romance reading challenge called BEGINNER'S GUIDE: LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS. Tell me if this sounds familiar: a brainy, heroine in STEM with Asperger's has trouble dating and feels pressured by family to commit to that monogamous life. She decides to find a boyfriend by quantifying her love life by establishing a baseline that feels comfortable and seeking out an Asian creative type who originally seems like he's her total opposite but ends up being her soulmate and oh, by the way: he has a cool tattoo. Sounds like this book, right? It's also the premise of Six de los Reyes's book, LOVE AND OTHER, which came out two years before this one.

THE KISS QUOTIENT has differences to LOVE AND OTHER, of course. The main character, Stella, is white. Her love interest, Michael, is half-Vietnamese and half-Scandinavian. The characters in LOVE AND OTHER are both #OwnVoices Filipino characters. Stella is a econometrician and Michael is a tailor by day and an escort by night. Kaya, on the other hand, is a geneticist and Nero, her love interest, owns a bubble tea cafe and paints. Kaya and Nero originally agree to go out on blind dates whereas Stella and Michael meet when she seeks him out with an escort app. They aren't the same story and their trajectory are totally different, but they're similar enough that one made me think of the other and I can't help but compare the two while reviewing THE KISS QUOTIENT.

I'm sorry to say that THE KISS QUOTIENT falls short.

My expectations were very high for this book because people were praising it for the Autism rep as well as the Asian rep. People were also saying that the sex scenes were hot, and that it had a very feminist-friendly bent. All of these things sounded very appealing, because as much as I love those trashy romance novels from the days of yore when men behaved like d-bags, sometimes it's nice to read about a male hero who wouldn't make you run - fast - in the other direction. But now that I've read the book, I'm a little bewildered because I noticed so many problems that nobody else was really bringing up.

1. The autism rep was portrayed awkwardly. I feel like I'm getting a little out of my lane here, but Stella's portrayal made me uncomfortable. There's this dinner scene with Michael's family that actually made me wince, and I couldn't help but wonder: did her mother never explain to her the rules of social conduct? Lecturing people about microwaving plastic and how it causes death (and using that as a pretense to refuse to eat the food that's cooked for you) and then probing incessantly into your date's absentee father is so tasteless and is basically rule #1 of "don't's" in social interactions. Another thing she does is read his bills when she's alone in his apartment. That's how she finds out his real name (he gave her a fake one because of his job, and for other personal reasons), as well as the fact that he's financially in debt. Again, pretty sure most kids are told that "snooping is bad." And I've met some autistic people before and even if they can get stuck on a single subject in conversation, they're usually pretty good with rules - especially if the reasons behind them are explained - so this felt very unrealistic and needlessly awkward, as this is something that would definitely come up in parenting, and just felt like it was created to create drama! for Stella. Also, of course their sexual relationship mitigates some of the issues she has because of her autism. #MagicDicklit strikes again. It seems like good sex can cure just about any ailment or symptom, doesn't it? Especially psychological conditions or neurodivergence. How interesting.

2. The relationship is not healthy. Any time a relationship is based in prostitution, I'm a little skeptical. Adult entertainment is a high stress, high risk job, and jealousy is going to be an issue, no matter how openly you communicate. Michael accepts her as a client, despite knowing that he's probably going to get too attached (and he does, spoiler: because obviously). They move from "educational sex lessons" to "educational fake relationship lessons," which basically consist of them going through the motions of a real relationship whilst lying to themselves about how they really feel about one another. Worse still, in the last act, Michael becomes this alpha stereotype, claiming that he's going to beat up this other guy for kissing Stella against her will and then later, when Stella goes out with the Kissing Assaulter on a date(!), he interrupts their date to punch the other guy in the eye while talking about how he's going to make the guy choke on blood or something like that. It's also pretty clear from the get-go that there is a definite economic imbalance between them, as Stella is wealthy and comes from money and Michael is poor and in debt (as she found out from reading his mail). Towards the end of the book, she donates fifteen million dollars to the hospital where his mother is receiving cancer treatments, so they'll treat his mother for "free." This felt so weird to me, because if she wanted to pay for his bills, why not just pay the bills - why sneak about it behind his back in some grand gesture that ends up depleting her entire trust fund account? When he breaks up with her (for her own good, of course), she almost resigns from her well-paying job on the spot to pursue him. Feelings that strong and that reckless aren't healthy - that's more like an addict w/ a fix.

3. The relationship is superficial. We're told over and over again that Stella feels comfortable with Michael in part because he's so attractive, she just can't help herself (he looks like Daniel Henney). Michael also founds Stella wildly attractive, and is absolutely thrilled that she wasn't lying about being thirty when she sent in the app, in fact, she says that she looks barely legal despite being older than him by two years! OH BOY! She's also thin and curvy, with "porn star nipples" that he says "men and babies both dream about" and a body that would make her perfect at pole dancing, not to mention that she's suddenly incredible at sex under his brilliant tutelage and comes like a porn star. We're led to believe that Michael is this great guy for being so considerate about her autism but it feels more like he's liking her despite her autism and making all these concessions for her (because he's actually annoyed with her at times for her behavior, and sends her mixed signals about them that I imagine an actual autistic person would find very confusing). At least in LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS, it's clear that Nero loves Kaya for who she is, whereas it kind of feels like Michael just likes Stella because she's good at sex and doesn't know how attractive she is, and brings out his alpha male protective instincts. In some ways, it kind of reminded me of a gender-swapped version of PUDDLE JUMPING, another autistic romance I had many problems with.

4. Philip. He's such a creep. Forcing himself on Stella and hitting on interns and employees at the office? How the hell does he still have a job? Stella totally seems to take his behavior for granted, and apart from the punch in the eye Michael gives him, he doesn't face any sorts of consequences for his behavior. For such a "progressive" romance, it was weird to see one of the villainous characters in this book get away with what would be considered a form of assault by some people.

5. The sex scenes were actually kind of awkward. I didn't really feel their dirty talk. Michael said some pretty odd things and so did Stella, including telling Michael that French kissing reminded her of pilot fish cleaning a larger fish's teeth. The weird porn star remarks and the comment about boobs that babies would love were just the cherries on this bizarre sundae of bad artistic choices.

I don't think this is a bad book, per se, and I would be interested in reading more by this author in the future - especially since it looks like she has yet another #OwnVoices romance with an autistic character coming out (one of Michael's cousins). I think the escort angle made this book awkward, even though the author said in her author's note that she was trying to go for a Pretty Woman vibe, maybe because she wasn't quite sure how to portray some of the complex gender role crises that could arise from a relationship of this type. I did think it was odd, for example, that Michael didn't feel any shame about his escort services but was embarrassed about being a tailor/fashion designer. Things I did like: I loved Michael's family and Stella's mom (hated her dad - and Michael's too; all the dads in this story just seem to suck), and thought the econometrician angle was interesting (I'd never known that was the science responsible for AI-generated recommendation algorithms on commercial websites). I probably would have liked this more if I hadn't read LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS first, but it wasn't as bad as puddle jumping, and if people with autism relate to this story and feel like they're seeing themselves in a romantic story for the first time, that can't be too bad of a thing. I wish this author luck with her next effort.

3 out of 5 stars

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