Well, after reading and LOVING The Kiss Quotient last year, it was basically a no-brainer that I was going to pick up The Bride Test. I don’t really have anything else to say in this little intro, except that for sure Hoang is an auto-buy romance author for me!
This novel focuses on Khai, a side-character from The Kiss Quotient that we meet very much in passing, but is the cousin of the male protagonist, Michael. Anyways, Khai is on the Autism spectrum, but that’s not really a diagnosis recognized by his Vietnamese family. Plus, since he’s been successful in his work life and always “toed the line,” if you will, everyone just assumes he’s fine and just…distant? But his mother thinks it’s time he found a wife and started a family, and since his routines are set and he’s comfortable and unlikely to find one himself, she steps in. Traveling to Vietnam to interview potential candidates, she brings back Esme, a mixed-race girl living in the slums and raising her daughter as a single-parent by cleaning bathrooms in a fancy hotel. Khai’s mother offers to pay her way to the US for a few months to give Esme a chance to meet and make her son fall in love with her. With her daughter’s future and the opportunity to perhaps find her birth father in mind, Esme decides to take a chance and go for it. But even though she immediately recognizes Khai’s good heart, and he starts to fall for her, she must fight to help him recognize that despite what he’s always believed, he does have feelings and he can fall in love with her too.
Well, Hoang does it again, writing a sexy and heartfelt and tender romance. Again, she writes a main character on the spectrum, this time the male protagonist, with such genuine insight. Based at least in part on her own experience on the spectrum, it is something unique and too rare in publishing, both in general and, especially, in the romance genre. Hoang makes it so easy to connect with an emotional experience that is so different from my own and I appreciate that expanding of my understanding(?) more than I can say. In this case too, I loved the authenticity of Esme’s character as well. I read the afterward Hoang wrote, about basically rewriting Esme after a first draft, to make her feelings, efforts, struggles, and goals to align with her own mothers’ after she immigrated to America. Honestly, you can feel that truth in every action and thought Esme has, in both her feelings of inadequacy and the inner integrity that allows her to persevere despite that. I don’t know what Emse was like before the rewrite, but I love what she ended up being. Showing her inner insecurities juxtaposed against her outer conduct was gorgeous in its quiet strength.
Regarding the plot, I really enjoyed the general story-line, as well as many of the side-plots. Where in the first novel, Michael struggles with his mother’s illness and the many costs of that, in this case, our side-plot is focused on Esme’s academic goals and her efforts to create a life that she can be proud of, to become a person that can make a difference. In both cases, I love what those storylines show us about the types of people the main characters are, and they add great depth to the basic “romance” piece. However, I would be remiss in overlooking the steamy side of things that was great as well. A little bit less than there was in the first one, for sure, but still quite hot, and with its own set of funny challenges and character-building moments. It was great to see Michael and Stella have a little cameo; I love those little touches in spin-off series like this. And all the little details that were so perfectly interwoven into the rest of the story really got me, like Khai explaining to Esme how to cut his hair and Esme’s water glasses and fish sauce cooking smells. Honestly, those small things are the parts the really make the story feel real, for me. And they’re also the pieces that really illustrate Hoang’s understanding of her characters, their personalities and backgrounds. Plus, the way she uses their cultural and experiential differences both to bring them together and push them apart is done so smoothly, adorably, and frustratingly (in a good way, when the plot calls for it).
The biggest issue I had with this novel is the amount of manipulation Khai experiences. Now, I understand the original premise fine, and am ok with the idea of his mother trying to find him a wife, especially when viewed through a cultural lens. However, I struggled a bit with some of the details, like the “expiration date” on Esme’s time in the country. I get that the original deal was made so that Khai was happy, knowing that Esme would eventually leave if it wasn’t right. But once that changed, and they clearly had an emotional connection, I didn’t get why the timeline couldn’t be extended to give them more time to grow in a natural and reasonable way. Along the same lines, Quan (Khai’s brother), was for the most part a fantastic ally, but I wonder at the way he handled the ending. And I’m not totally sure that rushing into things with Esme the way he did, to “help” Khai realize his own feelings for Esme were genuine, was entirely warranted on such a dramatic level. It seemed like he took things a step too far. For anyone, and especially for someone on the Spectrum, Khai was dealing with a lot of emotional and routine changes in a short period of time and I felt like he was doing great. I also felt like he would probably have gotten there on his own at a more comfortable speed, and maybe didn’t need quite that exaggerated of a push. I don’t know, I felt a little uncomfortable about it. But maybe that’s just me…
Overall though, I thought this set-up was a really fun one to read and I was definitely rooting for Khai and Esme – they were truly adorable with/for each other. Hoang has proven to be an adept and compassionate writer of romance, with a skill for sex scenes that adds the extra pop I love in a contemporary romance. I totally recommend this as a quick (I literally read it in less than 24 hours – couldn’t put it down) and satisfying romance.