Genre: Contemporary Romance, Romance
Theme: Arranged Marriage
Archetype: Character with a Disability, Diverse Protagonists
The Bride Test is very much a Cinderella story. It’s tender and so flippin’ sweet. As a book that I was really looking forward to since finishing The Kiss Quotient, it didn’t disappoint. Granted, there were more things that might bug some readers, but I loved this one even more than The Kiss Quotient. I didn’t even think that was possible.
Khai Diep is the cousin of The Kiss Quotient’s hero and he has a more severe acute version of Autism Spectrum Disorder than Stella from The Kiss Quotient. He mainly has sensory issues and feels as if he can never show the “right” emotions or say the “right” things. His mother thinks he just shy, and that a wife will help with that. His mom travels to Vietnam where she meets with various women at a hotel, in a sort of interview process. None of them ace the interview. Then Khai’s mom stumbles across Esme Tran working as a maid, restocking the hotel bathroom. She convinces Esme to come to the U.S. for the summer in hopes of her marrying her son. If it doesn’t work out, she’ll return to Vietnam. If it does, she’ll be able to stay in the U.S. and bring her family over.
Esme has a young daughter to worry about, as well as her aging mom and grandmother. The fact that Esme has a kid isn’t a spoiler, but it’s something she keeps a secret from Khai and his mother. Though she doesn’t want to leave her family, the pros outweigh the cons. Going to the U.S. gives Esme some hope that she’ll be able to better her family’s situation.
Khai knows that his mom has brought over a potential bride for him. She doesn’t deceive him, which I was rather worried about, that he’d somehow be tricked into getting married. He agrees to go along with his mom’s scheme with the caveat that after this experiment, whether it succeeds or fails, his mother will stop meddling in his love life.
So Esme and Khai have a summer of living together. Esme hopes to woo Khai, or at the very least make the most of the time (i.e. working, getting some education, etc.) and Khai tries to resist Esme’s adorable charm.
I want to mention Khai’s mom, Cô Nga, again because she really is well meaning and wants her son to be happy. Sarah also made a selfish request for more excerpts and my face hurt from smiling so much after reading this scene.
Khai and Esme are attending a wedding and they are so overcome by emotional conversation that they just have to kiss.
The room spun in a dizzying swirl, leaving the two of them in a world of their own. All she knew was the safety of his embrace, the heat of his mouth, and his scent–soap, aftershave, man. They needed a bed, a wall, a table, anything. She wanted him now, and he was so ready–
“They put too much oil in the soup,” a familiar loud voice said. “But the fish was–oh father of mine.”
His mom and several of his aunts stared at them from midway down the stairs.
Esme and Khai tore apart at once. Blushing furiously, she smoothed shaky hands over her dress as the ladies finished descending the stairs.
“Chào, Cô Nga,” she said before inclining her head toward the aunts. She pressed her thighs together, not used to being this aroused in room full of people.
Khai ran a hand through his hair. “Hi, Mom, Dì Anh, Dì Mai, Dì Tuyết.” Averting his eyes, he sucked his swollen bottom lip into his mouth. Oh sky, her lipstick was all over him.
“Anh Khai, let me–I…” She lifted a hand toward his face. When she hesitated to touch him, he brought her hand to his jaw.
“What is it?” he asked.
“My lipstick.” She brushed her thumb over a smear at the corner of his reddened mouth, but it couldn’t come off. “Oh no, Khai.”
Instead of getting upset like she thought he would, he smiled, flashing those dimples at her, and warmth flooded her heart.
He didn’t mind getting caught kissing her.
“Young ones, ha?” one of the aunts commented, and the others tittered into their hands like schoolgirls.
“These two kids.” Cô Nga tried to sound stern, but she couldn’t keep a smile off her face. “Go home already. People will see you.” She dug through her granddaddy-sized purse until she came up with a tissue and handed it to Esme. Then she dragged the aunts off.
This entire book is just chock full of cutie patooties.
Oh and catnip alert:
Sophomore books and sequels always make me a bit nervous. Will my enjoyment of this one hold up to my feelings of its predecessor? I had high expectations for The Bride Test. The Kiss Quotient was my favorite book of 2018 and I’ve since gone on to reread it three more times. Each time, I find something new to sigh at or cry over. Well, The Bride Test gave me those very same feelings, but amplified by ten. It’s a more emotional story, more introspective, more nuanced when it comes to the heroine, given the cultural differences between her and Khai.
But I also think it had some more hiccups, namely in the pacing. Aside from the summer countdown, there are two other sources of conflict. Esme doesn’t know her father and is using her time in the U.S. to try and locate him. If she finds him (he’s supposedly an American businessman), she wouldn’t need to worry about marrying Khai to secure a place for herself and her family in the U.S. . There’s also the aforementioned daughter whom Esme has kept a secret from Khai.
Both of these things are addressed and wrapped up during the climax of the book, quickly and without much ado. I expected more time devoted to these resolutions, given the amount of fretting Esme does over these things. They’re a rather big deal and I wanted them to have more of an impact than they did.
What I love most about The Bride Test and The Kiss Quotient is how heroine focused they are. Yeah, the hero is there and he’s dreamy, but both Esme and Stella are going on these uplifting personal journeys.
Esme is a poor country girl from Vietnam and it’s a big insecurity, especially in how she interacts with other people. She thought she’d met the man of her dreams as a young girl. Instead, the man abandoned her when she became pregnant; he never planned to marry her anyway. After the first time she and Khai have sex, he immediately gets up to shower. She doesn’t understand and she internalizes this as not being good enough, as Khai seeing her as something to use because she’s been used before:
As the water washed over her and the heat sank into her skin, she swore everything stopped here. No more. No more secret hoping, no more seducing, no more caring about him. She was done. She wasn’t rich, classy, or smart, but she wasn’t something you could use once and toss away. She had value. You couldn’t see it in the clothes she wore or the abbreviations after her name or hear it in the way she spoke, but she felt it, even if she didn’t entirely understand where it came from. It pounded inside her chest, big and strong and bright. She deserved better than this.
If this doesn’t make you want to shout “hell yeah” and give Esme the best high five, I don’t know what to tell you.
At the end of the book is an author’s note. Usually, I skip these, but I really want to stress the importance and just sheer loveliness of this note. It’s mainly about Hoang’s mother and how she served as inspiration for Esme. During the book’s first draft, Hoang reveals that Esme was not the heroine, but the third party in a love triangle:
A funny thing happened as I tried to write that story. Esme kept outshining the character meant to be Khai’s true love. Esme was brave, she was fighting for a new life for herself and her loved ones in every way she could. She had reasons, she had depth, but she also had a striking vulnerability. All of her “drawbacks” were not due to her character. They were things beyond her control: her origin, her education level, her lack of wealth, the language she spoke–things that shouldn’t matter when determining the value of a person (if that can even be done). It was impossible not to love her. After the first chapter, I stopped writing.
I asked myself why I’d automatically decided my heroine had to be “Westernized.” Why wouldn’t she have an accent, have less education, and be culturally awkward? The person I respect most in the entire world is just like that. After careful self-analysis, I realized I’d been subconsciously trying to make my work socially acceptable, which was completely unacceptable to me as the daughter of an immigrant. The book had to be reconceptualized. Not only did Esme deserve center stage, but I needed to tell her story. For me. And for my mom.
Hoang then goes on to describe how writing Esme helped create a deeper understanding of her mother, and her mother’s experiences as an immigrant. It emphasized the love that is so clearly present in who Esme is as a character, and admittedly, the note made me cry because it was just so sweet.
And now the waiting begins for the next book, which better be Quan’s book or I will riot in the streets. Quan is Khai’s brother and Michael’s cousin and he’s the biggest damn sweetheart. He’s a walking marshmallow, despite his looks, and I really want to know what sort of heroine charms him.
The Bride Test is so beautiful and Hoang was right when she said it was impossible not to love Esme. She’s tenacious and battles against her fear of failure, of judgement, and of her own self-doubt, to become this confident and self-assured woman. This Bride Test has only solidified my love for Hoang’s romances; they are truly a gift to the genre.
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Yay! Positive review! Like Amanda, I loved, loooooved The Kiss Quotient and am highly anticipating this follow-up, but I’m also nervous about sophomore books and all that. (I was recently underwhelmed by 99 Percent Mine earlier this year despite having loved The Hating Game.) So, glad that the reviews are positive (I trust you guys!), and I will definitely be scooping this title up later in the month!
Hoang was interviewed on npr this weekend. It was interesting to learn how she came up the ideas for her novels.
I read this yesterday and also liked it more than TKQ (which I liked a lot), and it cemented Hoang in the category of “I’ll read anything she writes”
That said, I’ll join your riot if we don’t get a book about Quan. He’s the best brother/friend/cousin/wingman and he deserves his own story!
Helen Hoang has already confirmed on twitter and in interviews that book 3 is Quan’s book. 😉
Ha ha, everyone, literally everyone, I’ve talked to looooves Quan. They’re like Michael’s great, Khai is great, but QUAN IS THE BEST.
@E.L.: Well…they’re not wrong. Quan is the best.
Ugh…. I guess I will have to read these books someday, at least the first one. I grew up with a sibling who had undiagnosed autism. In that era, it was common. It shaped a huge part of my life and my whole family’s.
I have some strong concerns that these books are glorifying or kitchifying the diagnosis, although that might not be the writer’s intent. Granted, I haven’t read them, but we should ask ourselves as readers, and reviewers (Smart Bitches) if these books are truly tackling what life on the spectrum means for people, and for families.
Because this is a spectrum disorder, it’s impossible to generalize characteristics… but these are some of the issues I have had to cope with as a family member.
Some of the autistic people I know will never be able to be truly financially independent,they will need help making decisions and managing finances forever. They are also more vulnerable to financial exploitation.
Some autistic people are taken advantage of sexually and emotionally by those who manipulate them. This happens to people off the spectrum as well, of course.
Some people on the spectrum, may yearn to start families, but are they capable of being parents, or will their disorder inhibit them?
Are the uncomfortable sides of autism ever really discussed in these books? There are far more severe issues I haven’t mentioned for some on the spectrum, and I doubt they show up in this novel. If you haven’t lived with a loved one on the spectrum you may not get this concern, and maybe you don’t care.
I will give the first book a chance, I’m sure I would be ‘a bad romance fan’ if I didn’t. But like I said—I have some concerns.
@ LM – The author is on the spectrum and her books grew out of her experiences. And, as we know, the spectrum is a broad one. Having volunteered with autistic individuals and seeing a nephew on the spectrum grow up to adulthood, I see an accurate portrayal. However, we are also talking about some high-functioning characters and there is a bit of humor. I really enjoyed The Kiss Quotient and am looking forward to this latest book.
@ Amanda – Thanks for sharing that kiss scene! That cemented my decision to read The Bride Test sooner rather than later.
Noooooo, it’s only coming out tomorrow! (At least in Germany)
I’m interested in reading Hoang’s second novel, but for me the question is less whether it will live up to the first than whether I like her style. I guess I’m in the minority but Kiss quotient didn’t rock my world. It’s a good book, a nice read, but I quickly forgot it (or would have if not for the hype). If the new one is good, I’ll try to reread the first to see of I’ll connect more… I’m definitely here for interesting, introspective heroines and cultural differences so thanks for this review!
@LM: What LauraL said. Both Stella in TKQ and Khai in The Bride Test do deal with difficulties. And I believe in the acknowledgments in this one, Hoang mentions having additional sensitivity readers.
I also recommend listening to the NPR interview mentioned above. We had a Guest Squee on TKQ from a reader on the spectrum as well.
LM, Helen Hoang has been quoted repeatedly in interviews on the sensitivity she takes with autism and autism-spectrum disorders and her characters. During her research for The Kiss Quotient, her daughter was tested for autism, which led to HH herself being tested at the psychologist’s recommendation. I believe she and her daughter are both on the spectrum, which was an “ah ha” moment for HH. Yes, her characters are high-functioning, but she deals with their disorder and symptoms with understanding & candor. I completely understand not wanting to read a raved-about book because it’s about a personally sensitive subject (there are certain romance tropes I will not/cannot read no matter how ‘classic’ book is purported to be), and you don’t have to. But if you’re willing to try, you may be pleasantly surprised with HH’s work.
I enjoyed her last book so much! I am totally looking forward to this.
I can’t think of one romance novel I have read about a relationship between an US-raised child of immigrants and someone of that same culture who did not emigrate. There is a stereotype that immigrant dudes here in America go back to the old country for a pliable, “cultural” wife – i.e. have a wife who may hue more closely to traditional roles than the american born children of immigrants. I think this will be done with sensitivity and cultural awareness…
I’m looking forward to reading this. Thanks for your review, Amanda.
Helen Hoang is on the spectrum, but her daughter isn’t.
According to the Author’s Note for “The Kiss Quotient” it was actually her daughter’s negative diagnosis that led HH to become interested in the idea of a autistic female main character and do serious research in preparation. Which led to some self-realization and her own diagnosis as being on the spectrum.
This was auto-delivered to my kindle overnight. I started reading it at 6:45am and finished it by 2pm. Am now going to reread TKQ again for the 4th time.
FWIW, I am autistic myself and Stella’s portrayal really spoke to me and my experience. Just like her, I sometimes struggle to know what to do in a situation, which leads me to 1) obsessively research the “right” way to handle things when I can and 2) wallow in misery when I get things “wrong.” I’m trying to build the skill of learning and moving on from mistakes without getting too upset, but I still need a lot of practice!
Because Helen Hoang is autistic and because she works hard on representation, I am not only NOT worried about autistic representation in The Kiss Quotient, I also think we need lots more like her: actual autistic people writing fiction that reflects our diverse experiences. Most autistic-coded characters in popular media aren’t written by autistic people and end up perpetuating stereotypes that lead to problems for us. (For example: no, we’re not all white male middle-to-upper-class STEM geniuses. There are huge diagnostic disparities for girls, people of color, and lower-class people and that stock character type doesn’t help the situation.) So I’m not going to get too fussed over people getting excited about hearing an actual autistic person’s story. I can’t wait to start on The Bride Test!
I loved this book, and was so glad that I took the time to read the author’s note about her mother inspiring the character of Esme, because it made the story even richer.
Also, I’m on board with Team Quan!!
Just as an update for all those who are reading this review at a later date: I bought this book with some reservations, read it in one swoop and loved it! It spoke to me more then Kiss quotient did, although I will now revisit that too. Esme/My is a wonderful heroine and much of the story is about her, get struggles, her dreams, her finding herself in this new country. I know way too little about Vietnam and next to nothing about Vietnamese immigrants on the US, but this book made me want to find out more. Definitely recommend!
Thanks Amanda – Based on your review I bought this without first checking out the trial chapter. Having gulped the whole thing down in one go, I have now the worst book-hangover; I really loved it!
@Jiobal: Yay! So glad you liked it!
I finished this last night and somehow I loved it even more than The Kiss Quotient! So many feels and Hoang’s author’s note offered such lovely insight into how Esme’s character came to be.
This book was so much fun, I loved it! I joined the bad decisions book club reading this one (stayed up late finishing it despite having an early-rising toddler). I don’t know enough about autism to definitively state it was well handled, but it felt sensitive. As for the immigrant experience, it was interesting and had depth. Esme’s characterisation was such an inspiration to me.