Thursday 18 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 42: "The Bride Test" by Helen Hoang

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:
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. 

This novel has an unusual and interesting concept for a story. There is the autistic hero - which you don't see too often in romance. The only book I can remember reading with one was The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, which I really didn't like much at all. Obviously, in Helen Hoang's previous novel, The Kiss Quotient, the heroine is on the autism spectrum. Khai, the hero of this book, is the cousin of Michael (the hero of The Kiss Quotient). 

It's very difficult for me to say how authentic Khai is as an example of someone on the autism spectrum, but since this is an #Ownvoices story, and the author became really huge with The Kiss Quotient, I cannot imagine she hasn't done her research properly. While Khai frequently struggles with social interaction, he's clearly not someone to really be pitied and he's clearly doing excellently business wise. One of the things I like about the book is that we never actually have it confirmed just how wealthy and successful Khai is, it's all just hinted at.

We also have an immigrant heroine, from a very poor background, in a situation that veers closely towards the arranged marriage trope. Esme (this is the Westernised name our heroine gives herself, because her favourite Disney movie is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Her Vietnamese name is given as M. From now on I will refer to her as M/Esme.) works at a cleaner at a fancy hotel. She lives with her mother and grandmother, as well as her little girl, and everyone (except the child) has to work hard to make ends meet. The amount of money Khai's mother is willing to pay her, even if she never makes a match with her son, is staggering. M/Esme would be able to secure a much better life for her child and extended family, especially if she gets a job while in the States (which she insists on, as she doesn't want to be useless and a burden). M/Esme also has a vague hope of being able to track down her own father, who may or may not be connected with Stanford university in some way.

There are huge cultural and social differences between the main couple. The whole book is pretty much nothing but misunderstandings from either side. Yet while something like that could annoy the crap out of me in a different book, here it's entirely understandable, as the couple are separated by background, culture, language - one of them is neuro divergent, the other is desperately trying to rise above her lack of education and impoverished background. Early on, M/Esme lies and claims to have a background in accounting, because a successful, handsome man like Khai couldn't possibly come to love her if he knew she was just a hotel maid. She works diligently not just to learn English as perfectly as possible during her stay, but also starts taking evening classes to make the lie a reality.

M/Esme is the real star of this story, she's such a fierce, wonderful, determined heroine. Even when she's desperately poor, she has morals and while she keeps her daughter a secret from Khai's mother and Khai himself for much of the book, she feels so guilty about it. She also makes it clear early on that she is not a prostitute and that Khai needs to be a willing suitor, she's not going to lie and manipulate him, just because Khai's mother wants him to get married. It made me sad that M/Esme always took pretty much every misunderstanding between her and  Khai as criticism of her and her background, but also served to make her all the more determined to make something more of herself.

I would say that more important than the actual romance in this book is M/Esme's journey of self discovery. Her learning to appreciate her self worth, that even if she's a poor, uneducated single mother from a small Vietnamese village, she deserves respect, love and happiness. She works so hard to make herself something, setting an example for her daughter. The sections where she thinks about her little girl or talks to her over the phone, broke my heart a little bit.

Is it always going to be like this when I read or watch TV and movies now? Because I have a child of my own, I'm going to find stories of motherhood and especially mothers sacrificing for their children, so incredibly painful. M/Esme has recurring nightmares about her daughter's father (who has a rich wife) showing up and taking the little girl away from her. She really has no choice but to leave her daughter for a few months, but I still found it difficult to read about, in a way I can't remember feeling before I had a little boy of my own.

In the afterword, Ms. Hoang says this story is inspired by her mother, who came to America after the Vietnam war and worked tirelessly to create a future for herself, her family and her future children. I cannot imagine a better tribute to what sounds like a very impressive woman. Hoang also confesses that M/Esme wasn't initially meant to be the heroine, but the third in the love triangle who lost out, so to speak. I'm so glad she changed her mind and the story, because while Khai was perfectly fine, M/Esme is who made the entire book for me.

Of the two books Ms. Hoang has written so far, this is now my favourite. The next book in the series is going to be about Khai's non-neuro divergent brother, who plays an important supporting part in this one. I don't think Helen Hoang has proven herself worthy of my pre-order list yet, but if her third novel is as satisfying, she won't be far off.

Judging a book by its cover: There seems to be a trend at the moment for a lot of "mainstream" contemporary romance to be packaged with illustrated covers, which sometimes works better than others. It can sometimes come off as a bit too twee, but I really like this one. The warm yellow background, the woman intently studying. The whimsical aeroplanes and their trails across the page, with the most prominent making a heart-shape. It makes me happy to look at and that's not a bad thing at all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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