Fiction, Reviews

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

Rating: 4 out of 5.

He certainly wasn’t pretending to be someone else, but if he looked at things subjectively, that was what the people around him usually wanted – for him to act differently, more appropriate, more considerate, less eccentric, less…himself. Did she really not mind him as he was?

Published: May 2019
Genre: Romance
Representation: Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, Multiracial (People of Colour), Neurodiversity (Autism Spectrum), Poverty
Content Warning: Sexually explicit, past death of a loved one, trauma related to death, discriminatory behaviours towards someone with autism.

Summary

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.

— summary from Goodreads

Review

We’ll admit: the premise of this book is a little silly. A mixed-race woman plucked out of the slums in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and whisked away to the United States in an effort to win a marriage to a man she doesn’t know? Sure, she has good reason; she wants to pull her family out of poverty and into a more comfortable American life, and provide her daughter with a better future. But still…Abarna will be honest in saying that she couldn’t help rolling her eyes at the set up of this rom-com. But what could have been a story full of recycled tropes and paperthin characters, turns out to be a charming and sometimes infuriating own-voices story (the author, Helen Hoang, is a Vietnemese American woman with autism) following a woman who transcends the expectation of being just a wife by finding self-fulfillment and reaching goals independent of love, and a kind and stubborn man with autism who believes he is incapable of having emotions (spoiler alert: he’s not). At its core The Bride Test is just a cute and sometimes awkward romance novel, with its fair share of steamy sex. But it’s these elements of diversity, three-dimensional characters, and fumbling honesty that gives it its charm. 

It’s amazing to see all of the diversity in the forms of people of colour and neurodivergence, the beauty of people’s differences, and a celebration of them. The book is unflinching in the way it presents microaggressions and discrimination; we see the ways in which Khai’s identity and concept of self has been moulded in response to how he has been treated throughout his life. In misunderstanding him or how autism can manifest (sometimes out of ignorance or frustration), the people in Khai’s life have made various comments or suggestions about him that have negatively influenced his self perception. As an own-voices writer, Hoang imparts on the reader some unfortunate realities of how people sometimes treat folks with autism. Khai’s journey through the book is a powerful depiction of the results of this negativity, but the reader also bears witness to the ways in which Khai learns more about who he is as a person, rather than who he thought he was based off of how other people labelled him. It’s amazing to see representation like this in a genre where we often don’t see any type of diversity at all. And it is so great to see Khai go through a moment of self-actualization, where he realizes he doesn’t need to be reduced to what other people have said about him. He is a fully formed person, he has feelings, and there is nothing inherently wrong with him. 

Of course, The Bride Test has its iffy moments. The biggest one being, as you may have guessed, the whole set up of the novel. The way that it is plotted makes it incredibly difficult to trust Esme and her feelings towards Khai. She has an ulterior motive for wanting to him to fall for her, and as a reader (at least for us), it gives you an uneasy feeling about her actions, and makes you question at which point Esme genuinely wants to be with Khai for him, and not for the fact that she would gain status in America. Don’t get us wrong – you can tell she does care about him at a baseline. She seems to be a compassionate person overall, so it isn’t an evil villain type of exploitation where she is using him as a tool for her goals. It’s a bit of both; genuine care and furthering her own agenda. It being a romance novel, obviously real love does blossom at some point, and Esme gets some redemption as a character (more on that later), but it isn’t entirely easy to fall into place and sympathize with her, at least for the first chunk of the novel.

Perhaps one of our favourite elements of this novel was the fact that the protagonist, Esme, searches for more for herself and her family outside of the marriage she was flown to the United State to procure. She signs herself up for night classes for recreation, and eventually comes to the realization that she could pursue an education (and later, a career), to support her family without relying on someone else. It became a much more meaningful pursuit in comparison to her original motivations of convincing someone to fall in love with and marry her so she can become a citizen and fly her family over for a more comfortable life than the one they have in Vietnam. This gave Esme that extra dimension, filling out her character as more than just a woman set on seducing a man for a green card. It positioned her as a goal-oriented woman who truly cares about her family, and is determined to do what she can to give them the best life she can. Of course, in true romance novel fashion, she does end up with the guy anyway, but she also graduates from college and puts marriage on hold instead of rushing into it like she originally wanted. In a sense, the marriage is given more value as something to symbolize their bond, rather than a tool to improve her and her family’s futures. Everything falls into place nicely by the end of the book, in a way that you would expect from any romance novel – even the silly, nonsensical parts. But hey, that’s what we read romance for, right? Happily ever afters? At least we do! 

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