REVIEW: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.
As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can’t turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working…but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who’s convinced he can never return her affection.
With Esme’s time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he’s been wrong all along. And there’s more than one way to love.
Dear Ms. Hoang,
Even though your debut book “The Kiss Quotient” got rave reviews last year, I will admit to being too chicken to read it. These “teach me about sexing” books generally make me skitter backwards. But after both Kaetrin and Janine reviewed it here with both giving it thumbs up, I decided to just cannonball into this one. Your forward note also helped my confidence by including the information that sensitivity readers had beta read it.
The opening prologue in which Khai Diep attends his cousin’s funeral gives us some very important information about him and his immigrant Vietnamese family. It’s all conveyed very subtly, something that is continued with other information throughout the book. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate being told something once and then not having it repeated ad nauseum every five pages just to be sure I “get it.” Anyway, as the ceremony continues, Khai feels that his lack of grieving is due to his autism – when he can’t cry, doesn’t his cousin’s sister accusingly ask “I thought you two were close?” It’s something he doesn’t ever forget.
Years later, young Esme Tran works at a no skills job in order to help put food on the table for her aged grandmother, her mother who exhausted herself providing for Esme without a husband, and Jade, Esme’s illegitimate daughter. Esme wouldn’t give up Jade for anything but she does sometimes wonder if it would have been better for her daughter’s future to hand her over to her wealthy playboy father who seduced Esme then married another woman. What future does Esme, much less Jade, have with no education, no training or connections?
At first, Esme thinks the older woman who tells her about her son is just a rich foreigner – obviously a woman who has come back over to Vietnam from America – from whom Esme might get a good tip. The woman is here to find a bride for her handsome, smart son but Esme knows that she will not be this lucky bride. She scrubs toilets for a living and no matter how much she’d love to go to California, that will never happen. Esme is human enough to (mentally) wish a case of food poisoning on this gorgeous guy and the woman he does marry. Okay, that’s not as bad as it might sound but a way I see Esme made more human.
Esme might clean hotel bathrooms but she has a sense of self worth and the woman’s insulting offer of money and a green card to marry her son sends stiff backed Esme out the door. Unknowingly, Esme passes the test and her own mother’s insistence that this is a golden opportunity that can’t be wasted – if only for Jade’s sake – has Esme on her way to California to meet a grumpy man who has to be coaxed by his mother into giving this whole idiotic thing a three month trial in exchange for his mother never trying to match-make him again.
So we have a hero who doesn’t think he feels love for anyone and a heroine who has to change his mind in order to grab at a chance she never thought she’d have. But Esme shrinks from using someone that way especially after her mother reminds her that with the clock ticking, Esme will have to forgo traditional demure methods to catch Khai’s interest. Bad girls are the ones who get the men. Meanwhile Khai’s sister has made him memorize “The Rules When You’re With A Girl” but his mother’s arranged bride is so stunning that Khai’s having trouble with # 6 – the rule about checking out inappropriate parts of a girl’s body. Esme is hot.
It doesn’t take long for her to turn his life upside down and completely mess with his schedule and house. And fold his socks weirdly. And make him sexually frustrated. All the time. But he’s not going to let her fall in love with him because he can’t love anyone and that would be a cruel thing to do to her. Esme does pick up on the fact that Khai is odd but she’s odd too – a biracial child in Vietnam learns that quickly and her green eyes have always marked her. But Khai’s “odd” is still an opportunity – after all the way he pronounces his name means “to open” and that’s what she has to get him to do.
I did think it strange that Esme is told that Khai’s autistic and while she might not know exactly what that means, she’s got a means to look up words she doesn’t know – this is mentioned and she uses it for school – but she never bothers to find out what this is. Really?? So yeah that seemed done just for plot reasons.
I adore that an initial breakthrough in their relationship does come from touching and not the usual type I’ve seen in romances. Instead it’s from a hair cut and it begins to build a bridge between Khai and Esme. Khai’s acts of consideration are a revelation to Esme who has never had anyone outside of her family be kind to her. Her hopes soar when they race home after one of the obligatory family weddings they have to attend that summer. The kisses are fantastic, she knows how to and how not to touch Khai and then … it all goes wrong.
The scene when Khai seeks his older brother’s advice on exactly how it all went wrong and then they get their cousin Michael on speakerphone had me laughing out loud. If Khai’s autism and virginity didn’t help the situation, his brother and cousin are there to hopefully set him straight on what he screwed up. Given Esme’s determination to not keep throwing herself away on men who don’t appear to see her value (yay!), Khai’s got a lot of work ahead of him. Thankfully his brother has books and Khai’s good at studying. Which he will after he makes sure the books are safe to touch.
Will it sound weird if I say I’m also happy that the eventual amazing sex they have doesn’t fix everything in their lives? Oh, no there’s still conflicts and issues. Since sensitivity readers have read the book and you know what you’re speaking about in terms of autism I will probably sound like a female dick when I say that the process and time spent getting Khai to the point where he was ready and able to express to Esme what she needed to hear took a long amount of time. On the other hand, something that is obviously supposed to be a key part of Khai’s makeup isn’t just zipped over in a few minutes, either. Yes, I realize I’m being contrary here.
But I’ll also say that the finale scenes of Khai racing to make it to the “church” on time had a movie version running through my head and me cheering him on. The resolution of another plot point and epilogue were a little bit sugary sweet plus I am a bit leery about the fact that a daughter’s existence is dropped on Khai this late in the book but I was delighted that Esme discovers her own potential and proves it to herself, her daughter, and to Khai. I enjoyed watching Esme reach for her dream and both she and Khai finding their perfect “One.” B+
I am in the middle of this book (about halfway through) and I’m enjoying it a lot so far. I squinted at your review but I’ll come back to read it when I finish.
This does sound appealing! Thanks for the review, Jayne.
I’m very happy that Hoang’s follow up to the breakout success of her first book is just as good, if not better, as The Kiss Quotient. In other words, she’s not a one-hit wonder. I’m very appreciative too of her knowledge of autism and ability to create such complex characters. I haven’t finished yet, but I adore Esme. She’s wonderful and heartbreaking and one of my favorite heroines in a long time.
This was so good! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Been a bit off romance lately, but this one had me up until the middle of the night reading. The perspectives were interesting and unique and handled with sensitivity.
@Sharon: Yes, I’m glad we’ve got another author who isn’t going to just give us cookie cutter “small town, baker, sheriff” books. For a while, it seems that every blurb I read had at least one if not two or all of those elements.
@Kate: Me too, in the “been off romance lately.” This and “The Unhoneymooners” have been two of my best fun reads so far this year.