REVIEW x3: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Dear Helen Hoang,
I loved The Kiss Quotient last year and was very excited to read your follow up, The Bride Test. Set in the same world as the earlier novel, The Bride Test is a Cinderella story featuring Diep Khai and Tran Ngoc My (who takes the name Esmeralda/Esme when she first arrives in the US). (Unfortunately WordPress does not cope with the Vietnamese language accents so I cannot replicate them from the book. Apologies.)
Like Stella from The Kiss Quotient, Khai has autism. When the story begins, Khai is at the funeral of his cousin and best friend, Andy. There he is accused of having no heart because he is not crying. I could tell he was very distressed but he wasn’t displaying that emotion in traditional ways. Because of this reaction, Khai comes to the conclusion that grief and love are not emotions open to him.
The book picks up a decade later when Khai’s mother returns to Vietnam to find Khai a wife. He’s not doing so good on his own (read he’s not doing anything about giving her grandchildren).
My is working at a fancy hotel as a maid and is cleaning a bathroom when she meets a lady (Khai’s mother) who invites My to call her Cô Nga. The Cinderella vibe is strong. (In case it’s not clear, this is a definite plus for me.) In this universe, Cô Nga is the fairy godmother. She has been “interviewing” potential brides for Khai and finding them shallow, grasping or unsuitable. My is kind, pretty, obviously hard-working and she passes ‘the bride test’ when she refuses to trap Khai into marriage by getting pregnant, not even in return for money. (It’s clear the “evil stepsisters” failed this test. To My it is unthinkable.)
My is a 23-year-old single mother, living with her own single mother and her grandmother. My has a five-year-old daughter, Ngoc Anh (who later takes the name Jade) and is desperate to provide a good life for her child, for her family. But she has standards and even though she’s been invited to share in the American Dream by Cô Nga, she won’t be unethical. Well, mostly she won’t. She’s not perfect. My agrees, at the urging of her own mother, to travel to the US and stay for three months. If, in that time, she can make Khai fall in love with her, maybe he won’t mind she has a daughter? She resolves to keep her daughter a secret for the time being so that Khai does not judge her before he has a chance to know her. Khai is very handsome (Cô Nga shows My a picture) and she is hopeful that they could have a good relationship. It is her aim to try and achieve that while she’s in the US.
My is very smart but has little education. She had to leave school after becoming pregnant. She has little opportunity in Vietnam because she is a poor single mother. She wants a better life for herself and her family and she works extremely hard to get it. I adored her.
Khai, for his part, is horrified when his mother announces he will have a fiancée staying with him for three months. Poor Khai. His mother is a veritable steamroller. He is powerless against her.
“Just send me her flight schedule. Where do I drop her off?”
“She’s staying here with you,” she said.
“What? Why?” Khai’s entire body stiffened at the idea. It was an invasion, clear and simple.
“Don’t sound so upset,” she said in a cajoling tone. “She’s young and very pretty.”
He looked to Quan. “Why can’t she stay with you? You like women.”
Quan choked in the middle of drinking Coke and pounded his chest with a fist as he coughed.
Their mom aimed her dissatisfied look at Quan before she focused on Khai and straightened to her full height of four feet ten inches. “She can’t stay with Quan because she’s your future wife.”
“What?” He laughed a little. This had to be a joke, but he didn’t understand the humor.
“I chose her for you when I went to Viet Nam. You’ll like her. She’s perfect for you,” she said.
“I don’t—You can’t—I—” He shook his head. “What?”
“Yeah,” Quan said. “That was my reaction, too. She got you a mail-order bride from Vietnam, Khai.”
Their mom glowered at Quan. “Why do you say it so it sounds so bad? She’s not a ‘mail-order bride.’ I met her in person. This is how they used to do it in the olden days. If I followed tradition, I would already have found you a wife the same way, but you don’t need my help. Your brother does.”
When My arrives in California, she introduces herself as Esme to Khai. (Her daughter named her after her favourite Disney princess.) Esme tries hard but Khai is closed off, not at all talkative and wicked smart. My feels inferior from the start. Khai is an accountant, she did not finish high school. He has an important job (just how important she doesn’t grasp for most of the book because Khai lives well below his means) and up until recently Esme cleaned toilets for a living. She has internalised the belief that she’s not worthy; she is looked down upon by her peers and by the rich girls who attend the hotel as guests, by the father of her child who dumped her for someone “better”. Esme’s arc through the story is learning that she is so worthy. As much as this is a romance, it is also a love story from between Esme and herself and I was rooting for her the whole way.
Khai doesn’t know what to do with Esme. She’s gorgeous but his sister has given him strict rules about how to treat women and they include not ogling them. It’s something he has to remind himself of often because Esme is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He isn’t a creeper though, no matter how tempted he is by her physical appeal. He’s also embarrassed by his attraction and doesn’t want to assume or pressure Esme at all.
Of course, Esme wants to attract him so there is a delightful push/pull as he fights to keep himself away and she keeps putting herself in his path. Esme is a whirlwind to Khai. She destroys the carefully built order of his days and of his home. She leaves half-empty glasses of water about the place. She trims his garden with his good Japanese meat cleaver (!), she makes traditional Vietnamese food and feeds him breakfast (he usually chokes down a protein bar) and she is just constantly there.
Doing his best to shield his boner from hell, he got up from bed and limp-scuffled into the bathroom—the only renovated room in his house. Then he stood in front of the shower and watched in awe as the lights flashed rainbow colors and water spurted from the nozzles concealed in the ceiling and along the sides. How had she done that? He hadn’t known there was a car-wash mode.
As a person with autism, Khai’s sense of order is extremely important to him. Also, he doesn’t like physical touch unless it is firm and he knows it’s coming. (I wondered how much of his mother’s gestures of affection were borne of this actually or whether it was just her. Either way, I laughed at the delightful description.)
Cô Nga rubbed Esme’s back like she was shredding carrots.
Gradually, Khai is able to communicate to Esme what he needs, but there are a few small misunderstandings as this happens. And some things, things which Esme secretly believes already, are things which create more issues for the couple – although I would not call this a Big Misunderstanding book.
Khai slowly adapts to Esme’s presence in his house and even comes to enjoy her being there. She accepts him as he is and doesn’t seem to expect him to change at all. She looks at him and doesn’t find him wanting. Perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to think that Esme would not have googled “autism” after she’s told Khai has autism but I could accept that the entirety of her experience in the US is so far removed from her life in Vietnam and she had so much of a learning curve once she arrived, that it wasn’t a priority.
He knew her well enough now to catch when she was joking with him, but he picked her up anyway. She laughed and wrapped her arms around him, grinning at him as her eyes sparkled in the sunlight. Right then and there, Khai decided green was his favorite color, but it had to be this specific shade of seafoam green.
Readers can see Khai falling in love even when he is constantly telling himself that he cannot love and therefore it would be unfair to Esme to marry her. But oh, he is deeply smitten.
In a split second, she redefined perfection for him. His standards aligned to her exact proportions and measurements. No one else would ever live up to her.
When Khai and Esme do eventually consummate their relationship it doesn’t go very well. Typical Khai, he decides he needs more input so he asks his brother, Quan, who loops in Michael (who has a history of being a sex worker so must be good at sex – true fact in Michael’s case as it happens). I snort-laughed out loud at the scene. The whole scene is hilarious and awwwww at the same time.
“Were you inside her?” Quan asked.
“Well, yeah. That’s how you have sex,” Khai said. They taught that in fifth-grade health class.
Quan gave him an impatient look. “Did you touch her clit at all?”
“Oh hell,” Michael said.
Quan smacked his palm to his forehead. “Her clitoris. It’s where you stimulate her to make her come.”
“Where is it?”
Quan rubbed both hands over his face as Michael repeated, “Oh hell.”
“What?” Khai asked. “They don’t talk about the ‘clitoris’ in health class at school.” It didn’t even sound real. For all he knew, it was an urban myth, like the Chupacabra or Roswell aliens.
“They really should,” Michael said, sounding pained.
Khai is dedicated after his “lesson” and Esme is soon delighted at what a fast learner Khai is. I loved that the sex between them wasn’t magically wonderful from the start and required communication.
My son goes to school with and has a number of friends who are neurodiverse. I know a little about the myriad ways autism can be expressed. One of my son’s good friends is quite rigid in his beliefs and it would take a backhoe to shift his position on something once he’s made up his mind. Another good friend with autism is far less rigid in his belief system. That friend often seems to be (seems being the operative word) careless of the thoughts and feelings of others. The first friend is very much not even though he is sometimes baffled by them. In Khai I saw elements of both friends, as well as elements of other neurodiverse people I have known. I had no difficulty with Khai’s characterisation; he felt authentic to me but I don’t mistake him as a stand-in for all people with autism. In fact, the series demonstrates already that autism is a spectrum – Stella and Khai have some things in common but many other things which differentiate them.
Khai’s rigid and intractable believe that he is unable to love is the biggest barrier to his and Esme’s happiness. This, combined with Esme’s intrinsic belief that she’s not good enough for Khai do create the black moment between them and it is what needs to be resolved for them to have their HEA. As much as I found Khai authentic, I did think his erroneous belief persisted a little longer than seemed credible for his character and was more about the needs of the plot but I also thought he was set up to be fairly stuck in that belief so I was able to go with it.
I could talk so much more about Esme’s character arc. How she came to value herself and the importance of education and accessibility in it. I loved how she grew into herself as the book progressed.
I did not love the length of time it took for Esme to let Khai know she had a daughter and yes, the reveal was a bit too hand-wavey. Khai’s acceptance seemed far to quick and easy for his expressed character.
I loved the way the language and culture were represented on the page – the spelling is different depending on whether the reader is in a Vietnamese perspective (Esme and her family) or a Vietnamese-American/American perspective. It was different and very effective in showing the cultural differences between Esme and Khai and it subtly demonstrated the divide between the life Esme knew in Vietnam and what she had to learn about living in the US.
I did not mind the storyline about Esme’s American dad – The Bride Test is a fairy tale after all and (proper) fairy tales get a happy ever after all around. I loved the way the HEA was expressed in this book – Esme’s to herself, and Esme and Khai.
TL;DR: Loved it. Recommend.