REVIEW x 2: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Dear Ms. Hoang,
As I enjoyed The Kiss Quotient, I was eager to read your follow-up contemporary romance, The Bride Test (It is not necessary to read The Kiss Quotient first; The Bride Test stands on its own).
Tran Ngoc My is a mixed-race single mother and hotel maid in Ho Chi Minh. My, as she is called, works very, very hard to provide for her young daughter. One day, while cleaning a bathroom, she meets Co Nga, a Vietnamese-American woman who has come to Vietnam to find her son a bride. Co Nga has been meeting young women all day, but none satisfies her desires in a daughter-in-law, until My.
My’s conscientiousness and ethics shine through, and she is pretty as well. Co Nga offers to bring her to the US for a summer, to see if My can win over Co Nga’s son, Khai. My accepts, though she doesn’t tell Co Nga about her five-year-old daughter who will be staying with My’s mother for the duration of My’s visit.
In addition to wanting the opportunity and security that life in America offers for herself and her daughter, My also has another reason for going: her mother was separated from her American father before My was born, and she suggests that My search for him. All her mother has in the way of identifying details about her father is the name Phil and a connection to UC Berkeley, but My is determined to find him.
So My travels to the US (her travel papers name her Esme Tran, so that is the name she uses while in the US) to win over Khai. When Khai picks her up at the airport there’s an immediate attraction between them. Khai has even agreed to host My/Esme at his house for the summer if his mom will give up her matchmaking efforts afterward. But Esme soon hits a snag: Khai does not believe himself to be capable of love. He experiences emotions differently than others due to autism but believes he doesn’t have emotions at all, and he therefore feels it would be wrong to lead a woman to expect his love.
Esme takes a waitressing job in Co Nga’s restaurant and starts putting away money for the future. She even considers taking English classes. But she has feelings of inadequacy; not only has she kept Khai ignorant of her daughter’s existence, she has also told him she is an accountant in the hopes of pleasing him. She compares herself to the imaginary “Esme in accounting” and believes that Khai would be better off with that other Esme.
Khai co-owns an accounting software company but his house and lifestyle don’t reflect his wealth. He likes everything in its usual place and Esme rearranges his house in an attempt to please him. Despite that, she grows on him and he quietly falls for her without ever realizing that he’s doing so. He’s so focused on being incapable of love that he misses his own feelings.
Khai and Esme’s relationship turns physical; Khai is the less experienced of the two but eager to please Esme. After a couple of setbacks, things start going swimmingly. Then Esme comes up against Khai’s belief that he doesn’t love her. Can Khai and Esme be persuaded otherwise?
The Bride Test hits all the beats of a romance and does it with flair. The novel feels fresh because it employs a theme that isn’t much used in the romance genre: that of the immigrant hoping to make the best of the chance she’s been given to better her circumstances. Esme is a loveable and human character with the same desires and frustrations anyone has, and the specificity of her circumstances only makes that more apparent.
The hero who does not think himself capable of love or fears love is a familiar trope, but Khai’s reasons for feeling this way, rooted in both his autism and his grief for his late cousin Andy, who died as a teen, make him relatable. There is something sweet about his cluelessness as well because he is so obviously well-meaning.
Esme’s mother and Khai’s brother, Quan, are engaging characters, too. Quan plays a heroic role here, just as he did in The Kiss Quotient, so I hope to see him in his own story soon. But my favorite of the secondary characters was Khai and Quan’s mother, Co Nga. She was warm, enterprising and capable of the occasional guilt trip, like many a mother, and the way she cajoled Khai into hosting Esme was as maternal and manipulative as it was recognizable.
The book is diverse—the vast majority of the characters are Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American, and there is Khai’s Asperger’s syndrome, too. I know at least one #ownvoices reviewer felt that there was ableism in The Kiss Quotient and I could see that, though it didn’t impact my enjoyment of that book. Here that wasn’t the case to the same degree.
The tone of The Bride Test is light but the book is also emotional. There’s a sweetness to the characters—Esme and Khai are a bit idealized. While they have insecurities and quirks, their flaws aren’t appreciable, and they have no shades of gray. There are just enough moments of fear or anger to keep the book from becoming cloying. Still, they felt a bit too good.
Your writing is sharp and clear. At times the sentences are so streamlined and direct that they feel like arrows shot squarely at the heart. The settings of Ho Chi Minh and San Jose are both well-rendered (as far as I can tell—I’ve never been to Vietnam), and Co Nga’s restaurant is brought to life with the clatter of dishes and the kitchen steam and cooking smells.
I love that Esme is shown doing her job and I adored the use of food in the novel, from the tropical fruit Co Nga bought so Esme would feel at home to the pungent soup Esme made in the hopes of pleasing Khai. It showed that food is an expression of love and a symbol of home.
The romantic tension is strong; it’s evident that Khai and Esme fit together well and would make a good couple. Esme is sensitive to Khai’s needs once he explains them and Khai supports Esme’s studies and her search for her father. More than that, I could feel Esme’s yearning to be loved by Khai and Khai’s fears as well as his desire for Esme, which goes beyond the physical.
As for the sex scenes, they were neither vague nor very explicit. There is one sex scene that was unlike any I have read before. I loved that the book went there and showed that sex isn’t always perfect, especially when the people involved don’t have much experience. The scene was still sexy and that made what happened all the more surprising.
I do have some quibbles, though.
In the book’s first chapter, after thinking for a bare second that Co Nga, Khai’s mother, could be trying to trick her as part of a human trafficking scheme, Esme sets aside this notion in an instant and decides to fly to America with Co Nga.
Later on, there are one or two points in the book when Esme thinks about how her reasons for wanting to marry Khai have nothing to do with money. I didn’t buy that—Esme wanted her daughter to have a financially secure life and she wanted the economic opportunity that life in America offered, too, so my reaction to that statement was an eye roll. I did not think Esme’s desires made her any less sympathetic—they were utterly understandable—so this statement was not only disingenuous but, if its purpose was to reassure the reader as to Esme’s goodness, superfluous.
My biggest complaint, though, has to do with the pacing. Khai’s denial of his feelings for Esme drags on too long. Even after Quan gave him a talking to and in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Khai insisted that he wasn’t capable of emotion. By the end of that section, I had a hard time believing that he really didn’t know he was.
One of the things that appealed to me in The Kiss Quotient was how streamlined it was, and how in command of the story the authorial voice felt. The Bride Test pulls in more plot threads and consequently bobbles the landing; the resolutions to the conflicts surrounding Esme’s father and her secret daughter are rushed.
Overall, The Bride Test was engaging and greatly enjoyable. It made me think about the immigrant experience and feel Khai and Esme’s hopes and sorrows. B+/A-.
I would love to see Khai and Quan’s mother get her own story – a novella, maybe?
I look forward to reading this after having enjoyed the author’s first book. Thanks for the review, Janine.
@Jayne: That would be so great! I would love it. And she deserves her own HEA, too, especially since Khai and Quan’s dad was apparently “stinky.”
I could not figure out how to put a circumflex accent over the O in Co Nga’s name without having it turn into an artifact down the road–that has always happened to me when I use accents at this site. But readers should know that the O has circumflex over it.
Great review, Janine. I’ve been meaning to try this author.
@Kareni: You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy the book!
@Janine: Years ago I tried accent marks for a historical Japanese book I reviewed and they all turned into question marks. Finally, I gave up trying with that review and didn’t attempt it with another.
@Jennie: Thank you! :) I think you would like her books.
@Jayne: Yup, yup, yup. It’s happened to me a bunch of times, though sometimes not until months or years later. I’ve given up too. I just spell names without the accents.
@Jayne: Yes, same. WordPress doesn’t cope with many other languages I’m afraid. :)
@Janine – I hadn’t seen that take re ableism in The Kiss Quotient before. I don’t have autism so obviously I’m not expert but I did see a significant change in how Stella viewed herself over the course of the book. I thought her self-acceptance was a major part of her arc. (Not unlike the arc for Esme/My in this book, albeit expressed very differently.)
@Kaetrin: I agree with you that Stella’s acceptance of her autism was part of her arc. I don’t have autism either but I do have experience with other disabilities such as depression and a wrist RSI. Based on what i’ve read on ableist narratives and based on my personal experience as well, even an arc of accepting a disability can be problematic, because unless the disability is very new, it isn’t something to be accepted; it is a simple fact of daily life. Viewing disability as something to be ashamed of is an ableist way of seeing disability. So Stella’s shame in her autism can be viewed as internalized ableism, the same way you would say that a woman who doesn’t value women as much as men might have internalized misogyny, or that a Jewish person (picking this example because I am Jewish myself) who is ashamed of being Jewish has internalized anti-semitism.
Still, it didn’t bother me as much as it bothered the reviewer, partly because the good writing got me past it, and partly because, as you say, the growth and acceptance arc was noticeable.
@Janine: Yes, that makes sense. Thank you for explaining. That helps.