Playing with Matches

I have two favorite literary qualities I seek when I read a book or article: voice and characterization. You’ve read many a post where I either praise a book for having one of these qualities (here’s one for voice and another for characterization), and you’ve certainly seen me complain about the lack of them on more than one occasion.

Voice not only keeps you engaged in a book, but it also allows you to better understand the characters, making it an integral part of characterization, which is such an important quality. Without it, readers cannot fully see who these people are and why and how that motivates their actions. When a book has strong voice and characterization, and its main characters’ experiences completely differ from your own, that’s when empathy, understanding, and — most importantly — change occur.

That was the experience I had with The Kiss Quotient, whose main character, Stella, has Asperger syndrome. Not only was this book funny and sweet, but author Helen Hoang’s portrayal of Stella was so strong that I found myself in awe of the social struggles that someone with Asperger’s endures, which I had only ever experienced from a very far distance before this book. Stella’s story — and the author’s too — is one I’ve never personally witnessed, and I’ve never read about it in a fictional setting either. Hoang puts you face to face with it. By placing me directly inside Stella’s mind, which enhanced the book’s voice, I could feel everything she felt every single day — no matter how difficult.

“I like you better than calculus, and math is the only thing that unites the universe.”

The Kiss Quotient

Stella Lane’s life revolves around her work, specifically all of the math it requires. Numbers and data always made so much more sense to her than feeling and emotion. As a woman nearing 30, though, she longs to connect with someone. Yes, that’s partially due to the pressure her mom places on her. And no, she doesn’t yearn to connect sexually with someone. Her limited experience mixed with her plethora of bad experiences has her thinking great sex and chemistry just aren’t in her future.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to improve her own sexual and romantic prowess, though, which is why she seeks a male escort to build her skills and prep her for a real boyfriend who could eventually become more. She seems to hit the jackpot with the escort she picks, Michael, an attractive, talented, and caring man who she persuades to go from one-night escort to extended relationship teacher.

Stella believes Michael will help her check off all the boxes on her sex lesson plan so she can become the ultimate girlfriend. She soon starts enjoying every minute with Michael, though, from the French kissing to the orgasms and from intimate conversations to the time spent with his family. But as her feelings toward him progress, she also can’t stop thinking that a man like Michael could never truly fall for a woman like her — a socially awkward math nerd who also has Asperger’s, which Michael can never ever learn about.

Romantic relationships and fun sexcapades never filtered into my youth. I certainly had trouble meeting and connecting with men, which led to some lonely nights at bars, jealousy of friends, and some doubts that I’d ever find “the one.” I don’t miss those awkward years of my early 20s when I never felt good enough and when I always wondered if and when I’d meet someone. Fortunately, I’ve happily been with my partner for more than five years, but I still remember being 23 (lol I was so young and dumb) and constantly feeling forlorn and that nobody understood, which is why books like The Kiss Quotient and characters like Stella are so refreshing.

I realize that Stella, a young woman with Asperger syndrome, has a completely different experience than I ever had, but it was still nice to read about a woman for whom flirting, sex, and romance don’t necessarily come easy. I’ve definitely read my fair share of romance or chick lit novels where the woman is a sexual goddess and where awkwardness with the opposite sex has never occurred. So I appreciate the relatability of this book.

“But was pity any better than hatred? Right now, he thought she was insensitive and rude, but he still viewed her as a regular person who happened to have some eccentricities. 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.”

The Kiss QUotient

Even more so, I appreciated that, while I could relate to Stella on some level, I was simultaneously reading about a person’s experience that was completely foreign to me. This is where the #OwnVoices movement comes into play. When I started researching this book, many of the reviews from critics and book-lovers like me commented on how a book like The Kiss Quotient contributes to this movement and promotes more novels about marginalized people by marginalized people. The “by” part is the most important piece here as we’ve seen the damage that can be done when people outside the subject group write about and from the perspective of that group. Not only does it not elevate these people, but it keeps them marginalized and can perpetuate negative stereotypes and falsehoods.

“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,” writes Kamrun Nesa from NPR.

I can’t say I’ve come across many books written from the perspective of someone with Asperger’s. Reading about Stella’s experience made me understand a condition that isn’t talked about enough or understood well. Hoang telling this story in relation to relationships and sex was even more powerful and completely elevated this narrative.

Aside from the importance of this book’s essence, I also really enjoyed the writing. As I said in the intro, I really felt like Hoang put me inside Stella’s mind, making for profound characterization and engaging voice. To exemplify this, take this line from the novel:

“With her luck, she’d sleep with a statistically significant population of them and have nothing to show for it but crotch burn and STDs.”

The Kiss Quotient

Not only are we quite literally in Stella’s brain here, but this quote from the very beginning highlights how Stella always thinks in term of data. It’s who she is, and Hoang shows this not just in her interactions and her work but also in her inner thoughts. Furthermore, it illustrates how bold and honest Stella can unknowingly be, something that comes up repeatedly throughout the novel. She constantly finds herself in awkward social situations after simply speaking her mind. In these moments, Hoang writes incredibly strong descriptions, allowing you to feel everything along with Stella.

On the flip side, this book does have some metaphors and similes that will make you scratch your head. It also changes from Michael’s to Stella’s perspectives quite frequently and not in a clean-cut manner, which may confuse you as it did to me. A few negatives aside, this is a fun, entertaining, and important book. It certainly inspired me to read more #ownvoices books and showed me empathy for a person whose experience completely varied from my own. For that reason alone, you should add it to your #tbr list immediately.

“Yes, she was lonely. Yes, she had a broken heart. But at least she had herself.”

The Kiss Quotient

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