Which was why it was such a pleasure to come across not just one, but three romances this past month featuring women falling in love while navigating their worlds as people with ASD.
Katharine Ashe's The Prince (book 4 in her Devil's Duke series) is set in 1825 England, long before the terms "autism" or "autism spectrum disorder" came into medical usage. A "small madness," is the term Ashe's heroine, twenty-year-old Elizabeth (Libby) Shaw and her father use to talk of her set of "peculiarity": repetitive daily routines; an eidetic memory; a lack of a social filter; and a single-minded desire to follow her father and become a physician, in a time when women were not allowed to apprentice as surgeons. Libby's so intent on her goal that when her father travels to London, leaving her behind in Edinburgh, she dons men's clothing and takes on a male identity in order study anatomy and chemistry, and to gain a mentorship at the city's Royal Infirmary.
There's not much of a plot in The Prince beyond Libby's medical studies and her growing romantic relationship with painter Ibrahim Kent (a bit about corpse-stealing comes in late in the novel). And don't ask how the two come to be sharing a house; you have to accept some plot contrivances whenever you pick up an Ashe historical. But the interactions between intelligent, direct Libby and secretive, wounded Kent (or Ziyaeddin, as he was called before he was exiled from his Middle Eastern country [one invented by Ashe]) are a real pleasure. As a painter, "it had always been his curse to see what others did not"; part of Ziyaeddin's seeing is recognizing the beauty in the not just unconventional but outright odd Libby:
He considered himself her protector. He wished to keep her safe, yet so differently from the manner in which her friends and father always had. They always wanted to protect her from the morass of her own thoughts and desires. He wished to protect her for herself, so that she could pursue her dreams. (185)
In turn, Libby uses her growing medical skills not to keep her "protector" close to her side, but instead to help him realize his own long-thwarted dreams.
My favorite lines:
"I finished bleeding two days ago."
The kisses ceased.
He rose onto his elbow to look down at her. "What are you saying?"
"That I shan't get with child from this.... Women do not typically speak of such matters to men, of course," she said, "unless the man is a physician, and even then infrequently. But I should think this a very useful thing for lovers to discuss." (319)
(Devil's Duke #4)
Unlike Katharine Ashe, new author Helen Hoang uses humor to draw in readers to her story of a 21st century woman struggling to incorporate romance into her tightly structured life. But readers are never invited to laugh at Stella Lane, the protagonist of The Kiss Quotient. Instead, the humor comes from the gap between Stella's way of looking at the world and the ways her family and her co-workers see it. Take the book's opening lines, spoken by Stella's mother: "I know you hate surprises, Stella. In the interests of communicating our expectations and providing you a reasonable timeline, you should know we're ready for grandchildren." I'm still smiling at that one, even after reading it for probably the fifth time now.
Stella, a (presumably white) Silicon Valley native, knows she has Asperger's, or what is now termed ASD, and is quite self-aware about her own differences. She hates uninvited touches; she likes to do things in a certain order, at a specific time each day; she tends to either be indifferent or obsessed in her interests; she can't help but say exactly what she's thinking, without any reference to the impact it might have on others. Stella knows her social awkwardness and singleminded focus on her job (as an econometrician for an online-shopping behemoth) will make it difficult for her to even find a boyfriend, never mind stay with a guy long enough to raise a child together. As Stella thinks to herself, "The problem was she couldn't keep a man for the life of her" (3).
After a conversation with a rude coworker, Stella has an "ah-ha" moment: "Maybe sex was just another interpersonal thing she needed to exert extra efforts on—like casual conversation, eye contact, and etiquette" (8). And so she comes up with a logical, rational plan: she'll hire an "escort" to teach her how to be better at sex, so she'll be better able not just to enjoy the deed, but to attract a "regular" man.
But Stella isn't counting on the emotions that often come along with sex—especially sex with a man as kind, and as gorgeous, as Michael Phan. Biracial Michael (Norwegian father, Vietnamese mother) trained to be a fashion designer, but returned from NYC to help his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer. And since he's always enjoyed women and sex, working as an escort in addition to his day job as a tailor at his mother's dry cleaning store to earn the money to pay her medical bills wasn't a big deal. But he's starting to get a bit bored with it all—until he's hired by Stella.
Because—feelings. Unexpected feelings. Surprisingly moving feelings. And not just on rational Stella's side, either. As he gradually introduces her into participatory, mutually pleasurable sex, seemingly easygoing Michael keeps getting taken aback by Stella's unwitting display of kindness and caretaking, things he's never experienced before from other women who have paid him to have sex.
Self-acceptance is the underlying message here, not just for Stella but also for Michael, who is burdened with his own insecurities and guilt. But it comes with a large helping of kindly laughter, as well as deep insight into the challenges of being an odd duck in a world that would prefer to everyone to quack to the same beat.
The Kiss Quotient
Perhaps my favorite of the three books is Talia Hibbert's A Girl Like Her, the first book in her small-town Ravenswood series. The book's cover features a hunky white hero, but the real draw here is the heroine, prickly Ruth Kabbah, whose mother emigrated to England from Sierra Leone. Unlike Stella, Ruth isn't worried about people knowing about her autism; soon after hot Evan Miller introduces himself as her new neighbor, Ruth tells him, "Before you ask, there's nothing wrong with my brain.... I'm autistic." Like both Stella and Libby, Ruth lacks social filters; she's obsessed (with comic books ); and her brain doesn't quite work the same as most other peoples'. As she thinks to herself during a difficult lunch with her neurotypical sister, "it's not you or anything you've done, it's me and this fucked-up tongue that won't obey and this fractured mind that won't think" (308).
But Hibbert's story is not about self-acceptance. Or at least, not acceptance of a disability. It's about coming to terms with past bad mistakes, mistakes that any woman could have made. Mistakes involving a boy, and the strong emotions of adolescence, and not having enough experience to see the difference between healthy and unhealthy desire. Ruth's become a pariah in the small town of Ravenswood, and not because of her ASD; she's crossed the town's golden boy, Daniel Burne—who also happens to be Evan's boss.
But Evan's an adult, and a newcomer to Ravenswood; he can see what the others, too caught up in Daniel's smiles and reputation, cannot: "This man had never been told no, and never thought he would be. Those were the men you had to watch" (187). Even though Daniel's all charm and Ruth is all prickles, it is Ruth who draws his attention, Ruth whom he wants to befriend.
And Ruth whom he wants to sleep with, a prospect that has Ruth, wary from her bad past with Daniel, not quite knowing how to respond:
"You can't say yes?" His fingers stopped.
"I can't say yes. I can't say no, either."
He swallowed. Hard. "You're not afraid of me. Are you?"
"No." She'd never been less afraid of a man in her life. "I just. . ." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "I can't give you permission to fuck me over."
He smiled slightly. "That's not exactly what I want to do."
"But you will," she said sharply. Was this really what she thought?
"You will, and when you do, at least I'll know I never gave you permission." (1876)
It takes Ruth some time to understand just how different Evan is from Daniel. His words—"It's just, I want to do things with you. Not to you. There's a difference" (1892)—aren't enough. He has to show her, not just tell her, that he's worthy of her trust. That's something that can only build over time. But the reward for Ruth, and for the reader, is well worth the wait.
"Feelings weren't as straightforward and binary as he'd once assumed; around Ruth, he could feel fifty things at once."
A Girl Like Her
Ravenswood Book #1
Nixon House, 2018