The Bride Test
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 to learn that there’s more than one way to love.
AAR reviewers Caroline Russomanno and Em Wittman read Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test, the much-anticipated follow up to her fabulous début, The Kiss Quotient – here’s what they have to say about the book.
Caroline: This book got off to a bit of a rough start with me, because I felt that My/Esme’s life in Vietnam and her decision to come to America were underdeveloped. I think the author was worried that she’d come across as a gold digger, but I think her (Esme) seeing it as a financial opportunity would have been realistic. She’s a single mom in poverty caring for two older generations! It’s totally sympathetic!
It was also hard for me to fathom Khai’s mother, who owns some successful local restaurants but is not described as wealthy, blowing that kind of money on the hopes that she’d found a bride for Khai.
Em: I had the same problem. The plot premise that brings Esme to the US is established in these very first scenes and nothing about the set-up or My’s introduction to Khai’s mother rang true as either possible or plausible. Fortunately, aside from this misstep that gets the story going, the rest works. The Bride Test is entertaining and well-written, poignant and often very funny. Unfortunately, everything that isn’t great about it (well, mostly everything) is related to that implausible set-up and its repercussions throughout the story.
Regarding the two mothers – Esme’s relationship with her mom was odd. She encourages Esme to take the offer knowing very little about it. And Khai’s mother starts off as a slightly Machiavellian character, trying to find a wife for Khai without him knowing anything about it or knowing anything about the woman she was choosing!
Caroline: I agree. Maybe it would have made more sense for Esme’s mother to have signed Esme up with an agency or web site without Esme’s knowledge, and then convinced Esme to go – at least then there’d have been some vetting and some more logic to the match.
But if we suspend disbelief about the premise, and see it as sort of a fairy godmother/Cinderella fantasy, what about the rest of the book? What did you like?
Em: Yes! Let’s do that – because it’s a great story. I loved the bewilderment Khai and Esme experience when they first meet and then immediately start living together. They’re total and complete strangers who – fortunately – feel a spark of attraction right from the start. I loved the little vignettes of their life together – every scene is either awkwardly hilarious or awful. Esme tries to understand Khai (but doesn’t know he’s autistic), and her efforts to win him over really endeared her to me. Although I thought it was bizarre that no one told her he has Asperger’s until the near end of the book.
Caroline: I’m a sucker for male virgins. The scene in which Khai and Esme first have sex, and Khai’s performance is… lacking – is at that magical literary intersection of hilarious, touching, and authentic. Not all first times are going to be fantastic, especially for a hero who really has no idea what he’s doing.
I loved how the author had Khai’s male relatives (including Michael, the male escort hero from The Kiss Quotient) rally to help him understand sexual technique rather than joking or teasing him. Khai was sincere, and they showed him respect. So many ‘bro’ bonding scenes are based on mocking, but this wasn’t, and I loved it.
Em: I loved that sequence too. It’s so well done – and I was happy to revisit Michael!
The other wonderful aspect of this novel is how Ms. Hoang writes about families – the love and frustration family members feel for each other, the bond between mothers and their children, and especially the bond between Khai and Quan. What parts did you like best?
Caroline: I really like how she brings the details of Vietnamese immigrant and Vietnamese-American life to the surface. The funerals and death anniversary ceremonies, for instance, and how Khai feels so flawed because he doesn’t connect to grieving rituals. The way that the slinky dress Esme wears marks her as “mail order bride” when she and Khai attend a wedding. Esme’s choice to use Vietnamese with Khai so he doesn’t experience her flawed English, and the way her daughter picked Esmeralda as My’s English name because of her favorite Disney movie (as someone who studied German as Liesl because of The Sound of Music, I can relate!)
Em: Let’s talk about Khai for a bit. Much like Stella Lane in The Kiss Quotient, Khai is autistic, but high functioning. Ms. Hoang knows her subject matter (she has Asperger’s) – and her characterization of Khai is fascinating; it’s so interesting to view the world through his eyes and experience how he gets to know Esme. He owns a successful business and is going through life mostly happy – except for his pesky problem of thinking he’s unable to love. And he’s so wrong!
Caroline: I wanted to be okay with his “I can’t love” complex because, as someone who’s not autistic, I’m hesitant to judge the feeling as realistic or not. However, the fact that he came to a perfectly-timed thunderbolt realization, including cinematic long-delayed tears, made it feel like a plot device.
What I did like about him was how fully realized he is as a person with high-functioning autism. The details of his house, for instance – how he has everything placed, how he feels about smells when Esme cooks – they are details I can tell are coming from an author who has either lived them or done darn good research.
Em: Khai is complex and complicated, good and generous, and he tries so hard to understand Esme and be who she needs him to be. I thought he was terrific. But the timing of his ‘a ha!’ moment was definitely fortuitous! Quan knew just what it would take to force Khai to face his feelings, and he applied pressure right when it was needed. I didn’t have a problem with this last minute realization – Khai seems to process things in his own way, and then once he makes a decision, he’s all in.
I was surprised by the evolution of Esme’s character. Although her initial purpose in coming to the US was to marry Khai, she works hard to improve her life in other ways. She goes back to school, saves her money and plans a better future for herself and her family – regardless of Khai’s affection. I enjoyed this depiction of an immigrant’s experience in America, and the hard work and perseverance she puts in even after she thinks she’s failed to win Khai’s love. Esme is 100% true to herself and doesn’t accept less from anyone else around her – even when it would make her life so much easier. I did find it difficult to reconcile Esme with the My we meet in the opening chapters, however. Did you?
Caroline: I agree. She was so passive at the start, being swept off by other people’s plans, and then suddenly became full of initiative and independence, doing things like pursuing education or borrowing Khai’s motorcycle without asking. The thing is, I liked that Esme! If the prologue had had the rewrite we talked about earlier, I think this whole issue would have gone away.
Em: I enjoyed almost everything about The Bride Test, and I think Ms. Hoang mostly succeeds with this ode to loving ourselves – flaws and all. The writing is strong, the principal and secondary characters are complex and interesting, and the love story is romantic and special. It’s a B+ for me.
Caroline: I like the author’s clear, straightforward prose, although my ARC had some spelling issues I hope will be sorted out before publication. I also liked the fact that these characters were falling in love in a multidimensional setting, with class issues, immigration issues, neurodiversity issues, weight of cultural expectations, etc., but I wanted a bit more depth from what was there, and a bit more originality in the plot structure. That sounds like a B+ to me, too.