Romance. It’s a tough genre to write about, especially when trying to accurately represent Asians in the modern world. The Bride Test is Helen Hoang’s second standalone novel, after the popularity of The Kiss Quotient shot up the charts as a diverse breath of fresh air. As we’re now living in a post Crazy Rich Asians universe we can expect to see a wider – and better – selection to choose from and The Bride Test continues Hoang’s fun and easy-going journey bringing the diversity of Asian characters to the literary world.
The story follows the usual romantic genre tropes: girl meets boy, girl and boy start to fall in love, boy messes up, boy tries to make it up to her, boy wins her back and they all live happily ever after. Only there’s a twist: the boy is autistic and the girl is trying to get a green card. As you could imagine, those things would definitely add a few wrinkles to the relationship.
To the outside world, Khai Diep is an emotionless bastard who couldn’t even cry at the funeral of his best friend and cousin, Andy. But Khai’s family knows better because he’s autistic and experiences the world and emotions in a different manner. When his nosy mother decides it’s time for him to grow up and get married, she searches for the bride-to-be in her home country, Vietnam. There, she discovers Esme, who is cleaning the toilets of the hotel she’s been holding ‘Bride Search’ in and offers her an alluring option: seduce her stubborn son into marrying her and stay in the United States. Who could turn away a life-changing gift like that?
What the nosy mother doesn’t reveal is that her son is autistic which leaves room for a comedy of errors when Esme travels to the states and meets Khai for the first time. But the mother isn’t the only one with secrets, Esme has a daughter from a one-night stand. Cue gasps!
From the beginning, Esme wants to impress Khai, throwing herself fully into seducing him so she can stay in the United States. But she finds an unwilling participant in the seduction. And when she comes across Khai’s ‘odd’ behavior, she brushes it off as characteristics of American people as she’s never encountered an autistic person before. Over time, she starts to fall in love with Khai, as he does with her, but when it comes to the true test of saying “I love you”, Khai fails miserably. In his mind, he’s incapable of love so how could he possibly say the words?
This is where a lot of romance characters fall apart for me. I grew up reading them but it irritated me how the woman was always portrayed as someone who has to wear revealing clothing and act a certain way in order to win her prize. This is even worse when an Asian woman does it as it perpetuates a grating stereotype. On the other hand, the way Hoang portrays Khai is in a more honest light – he hates attending weddings, preferring to read his science fiction novel, doesn’t like light touches, and needs to have a routine or his world falls apart. In this, Hoang writes from a personal place because she herself was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (or what was previously known as Asperger’s) in her 30s.
The story is simple (as most romance books are) because it’s all about romance and trying to figure out what the other person may be thinking, but isn’t communicating. I equate a lot of romance novels to people yelling at the book, saying, “Why won’t you just say what you’re thinking?!” At times, it can be the most obvious thing but the characters refuse to listen, continuing on their paths with a stubbornness that was the core value of a lot of 90s rom-coms.
That being said, The Bride Test is a cute story without much depth, but that’s not much of a problem. It’s a quick read that won’t occupy your life for too long and is cotton candy for your brain, and the various twists between the main characters kept things interesting (enough) until the final page. What gives me hope is to see more stories like this (and Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians) where Asians are portrayed in more contemporary situations. Helen Hoang has proven herself a talent to watch out for, and I’d love to see more books like this come out – and not just in the romance genre.