One evening around dinner time at the Pond, Xiaolong smelled a rich, delectable aroma of something slightly tangy and warm.
“Mmm,” she mused, “I wonder what’s cooking. It sure smells great!”
She wandered in the direction of the scent to find Cuddle huddled over the fire with a ladle in her paw, stirring what looked to be an orange colored soup filled with noodles, sprouts, and various meats. The steam wafted up from the pot towards Cuddle’s face as Party sat peacefully on a log behind her, awaiting dinner.
“Oh, hi, Xiaolong, come over here! I looked up the recipe for an authentic Bún bò Huế. After I read THE BRIDE TEST, I couldn’t stop thinking about this soup. I had all this fish sauce saved up and reading that scene where Esme used it in her recipe made me want to try to make it myself. Taste it. I hope it’s good!” Cuddle shifted nervously from side to side.
“We just had fish snacks the other day, remember? I loved them!” said Xiaolong.
“No, Silly, fish sauce! Not fish snacks!” giggled Cuddle.
She scooped Bún bò Huế into three bowls: two big and one small, added lime slices, and carried them carefully over to a tree stump by the log where Party was perched.
“Speaking of THE BRIDE TEST, I loved it so much. Let me tell you more…”
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.
THE BRIDE TEST opens in Ho Chi Minh City, where Khai Diep’s mother, Cô Nga, takes Trấn Ngọc Mỹ, or Esme, by surprise, and propositions her with the opportunity to move to the Bay Area of California to date her son, in hopes of them one day marrying. Esme is not well off and lives in poverty, so with the hopes of securing a better life for herself and her daughter, she agrees and moves in with Khai, attempting to seduce him. Their story is romantic, exploratory, and well-rounded.
Khai’s character development was a highlight. At the beginning of the story, he is working through how he processes feelings, including grief from the death of a loved one after an accident. He also believes he cannot feel love. Over the course of the book, he begins to build his definition of love, including how he and his partner would show their love and respect in specific situations, and what communication is needed. At the risk of sounding cliche, this is what “love as a verb” really means – to build a foundation, and constantly grow and alter its constituents as necessary.
Khai and Esme’s first time having sex was so realistic, because sometimes, it takes awhile in a relationship to learn what the other person needs and how the other person communicates. The aftermath, however, was hilarious, as Khai went to his brother Quan and his cousin Michael (who we met in THE KISS QUOTIENT! Hi Michael!) for advice and to rehash his experience. I laughed so hard, and I don’t laugh easily when I read.
Humor aside, this communication was also what I appreciated about THE KISS QUOTIENT. In both of Helen Hoang’s books, consent regarding types and areas of touch is extremely important to her characters Stella in THE KISS QUOTIENT, who has Asperger’s, and Khai in THE BRIDE TEST, who has autism. Another scene that was crucial in exploring touch was when Esme was cutting Khai’s hair, and he explained to her exactly the type, amount, and direction of pressure to put on the piece of hair she was cutting. This reminded me of an ad I saw for a hair salon whose owners had put particular resources and research into tailoring to children with autism and sensory processing challenges because haircuts can be particularly uncomfortable to them. In the book, Helen Hoang managed to make their interaction intimate but with direct communication, and I felt immense appreciation.
Khai and Esme’s love was also tested by the constraints of immigration. Immigrating to the United States is extremely complicated, and people who are not immigrants can blissfully go about their day without worrying about the same things. Esme’s battle with paperwork and her status, and her feeling of constantly wondering if she is doing enough to stay in the country, is one that is unfortunately true to reality. However, through this fight, she works towards self-actualization. Khai’s family also helped her, and I appreciated how much they did not impose, like in some other novels that use the kinda-sorta-arranged-marriage trope. Of course, this is not always the case, especially in East Asian families, but it was definitely a breath of fresh air.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Helen Hoang describes how she talked to, in her own words, a “magnificent Vietnamese woman” who lived in poverty and immigrated to the United States – her mother. Like Esme, she also fell in love with a man with autism – Helen’s father. I teared up when Helen described how writing THE BRIDE TEST allowed her to really hear her mother’s stories about living in poverty and the blatant racism they experienced upon landing in the United States. I grew a newfound respect and admiration for both this book and her family, and I will think of them every time I re-read.
One point I wish had been different was Esme’s relationship with her daughter. I am admittedly in the very beginning stages of motherhood and her daughter Jade is several years older than mine, but Esme did not seem very distressed about moving so far away from her, so suddenly. If I had to move an ocean away from my daughter, I would probably be a blubbering mess every second that we were apart. There were definitely points where I felt their love and connection, but to me, their relationship felt slightly incomplete – not overly so, but enough for me to take notice.
In the end, Khai and Esme’s love story is one that I feel has no end, which sounds strange, but is important. It has no end because they are continually reflecting, exploring, and realizing new things about each other and themselves. This cycle makes love everlasting.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
THE BRIDE TEST is romantic and sexy, and perfects the kinda-sorta-arranged-marriage trope. Helen Hoang also does not diminish the massive amounts of paperwork, status changes, and emotional labor that immigrants experience. She hits it out of the park with another ownvoices romance featuring a main character on the autism spectrum.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Esme travels to the Bay Area of California from Ho Chi Minh City to potentially marry Khai, who she has never met, and their love story explores immigration, self exploration, and defining love.
Trigger/content warning: Grief, vehicle accident, graphic sex