Stella Lane thinks math is the only thing that unites the universe. She comes up with algorithms to predict customer purchases — a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with, and way less experience in the dating department than the average thirty-year-old.
It doesn’t help that Stella has Asperger’s and French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. Her conclusion: she needs lots of practice — with a professional. Which is why she hires escort Michael Phan. The Vietnamese and Swedish stunner can’t afford to turn down Stella’s offer, and agrees to help her check off all the boxes on her lesson plan — from foreplay to more-than-missionary position…
Before long, Stella not only learns to appreciate his kisses, but to crave all the other things he’s making her feel. Soon, their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. And the pattern that emerges will convince Stella that love is the best kind of logic…
This book had the nerve…the audacity…the unmitigated gall…to come into my home…where I pay the bills…and let me down.
On the bright side, however, at least it’s not a Percy Jackson movie.
I relish stories that give voices to cultures and experiences that are unfortunately too rarely represented on page or screen, so when I heard this book is an ownvoices story about a woman with Asperger’s, I immediately added it to my TBR.
Although this novel isn’t as winning as I expected it to be, there’s certainly plenty to admire in it: the fact that this is a book version of Pretty Women but with a refreshing subversion that’s embodied in the gender role reversal, the exploration of money and how fortune doesn’t touch everyone with the same hand which was by turns careful and unflinching, how there’s a real sense of culture and history in the depiction of Michael’s community (his Vietnamese heritage shines through and there’s tremendous joy in his interaction with his family: the banter, the support, the kindness threaded through pitiless teasing), and the knowledge that the events in this book and the author’s continued research has inspired her to seek out a therapist and be diagnosed on the spectrum. It’s very important to see autistic women at the forefront of efforts at representation, expanding the conversation and the vision for autistic characters.
That said, I fault this book for many things—each one jabbing at my initial excitement, until it deflated completely. I fault it for being boring, averagely written and riddled with clichés. Most important, though, I fault it for demonstrating knowledge of important issues only to lampshade the significance of its premise rather than delve deeper into something more nuanced. I expected more from this—more rigor, more thoughtfulness, more craft. Instead, I was left staggered and uncertain how to feel about the whole thing—about an ending that felt trivial, almost mocking the seriousness of the rest of the book, and a fizz of uneasiness that I couldn’t quite shake afterwards.
This is the story of a woman who was smart and beautiful and accomplished, and who simply had the poor fortune of coming across men who had never cared for more than their own entertainment, who didn’t have her welfare anywhere remotely near at heart and who treated her more like a boring convenience than an exciting toy. So, she stood there and accepted the weight of the blame, because clearly, if someone hurt you, there’s something wrong with you to deserve it. For Stella, it was her autism.
If it were obvious and unmistakable at any point in the book that the author was highlighting this attitude as a problem, I might feel more kindly disposed toward it. Instead, it’s relying on the misguided belief that autism is an inherent flaw that you’re supposed to overcome, and it’s positioning the love interest, Michael, as someone who will, and I quote, “seduce [perhaps more aptly termed in this context: fuck] the anxiety out of [Stella]”, failing to examine the crucial fact that Stella’s past sexual encounters didn’t go awry because of her autism—her past dates were simply pieces of shit who didn’t treat her like a human being. And then, Michael comes along, shows Stella the barest scrapings of human decency, and she feeds off that, because she’s been starving and thought such crumbs a feast.
It’s like the novel version of those heterosexual dating articles whose entire premise is basically: “How To Hack Men Into Treating You Like a Person.”
This is a frustration exacerbated by the fact that once Stella establishes that she enjoys physical contact with a man (read: a man who treats her decently and who doesn’t leave her laying on the bed like an unloved doll splayed out on the floor), she suggests that they now forgo the sex altogether and work together to figure out how to make her comfortable in romantic situations, and so begins a fake-relationship which of course blossoms into a romance.
I fault this book for trying to depict a well-balanced pairing only to deploy it in ways that feel manipulative and disingenuous. The bar was already set so low for Michael…and yet, he still managed to slide right under it. Michael says all the right things to make Stella feel comfortable, but his words stand in blatant contrast against his actions—which were infuriatingly manipulative and alarming. For instance, when Stella clearly voices her discomfort with something, Michael sweeps aside her comments like you’d brush crumbs from a table and assures her that she’ll enjoy it when she tries it, and of course, she does—her agency completely disregarded by this point. The relentless patronizing Michael was subtly practicing throughout this book left a deeper impression than anything else, and I couldn’t just chalk it up to character unreliability.
Also egregious is how Stella’s symptoms seem to conveniently disappear around Michael. In fact, it was pretty obvious early on that the narrative was charitably embellishing Michael’s traits, palliating his possessiveness, and only illuminating his character by villainizing literally every single other male character. This is made even more manifest in the second love interest, Philip, Stella’s coworker, who is painstakingly one-dimensional: he’s an unmitigated jerk. That’s it. That’s the extent of his contribution. I can’t overstate how exhausted I am of this trope. If the romance in your book is only inevitable because every character who’s not the potential love interest is an unbearable asshole…maybe you have a problem.
Speaking of problems, there was a particular scene in the beginning that stirred the most unpleasant riots of emotions in me: Philip comes into Stella’s office, casually asks her if she’s a virgin and gives an unsolicited advice from “a man who’s been around the block a few times” (I rolled my eyes so far back I could see the last of my brain cells dying) which is that if she went out and fucked a lot more men, she’d be more experienced and have more luck. The entire scene was howling “sexual harassment in a workplace” and, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the fact that this whole encounter was carelessly glossed over was extremely disappointing.
I’m still very frustrated by this book’s refusal to explore and thoroughly examine so many prominent ideas in favor of escalating a plot that keeps a very tight, narrow focus on a romance with really questionable dynamics. I do recognize, however, the importance of books like The Kiss Quotient and how they help improve awareness and diagnosis rates for this under-represented group and I hope to see a greater plurality of representation for autism.