The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Penguin Random House 2019)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
I have never encountered a person who is not fully human in 35 years of private practice as a clinical psychologist. Diagnoses, country-of-origin, race, religion, and financial status do not define people. Not at all. Why do we say that a person has cancer or has arthritis and, conversely, say that a person is autistic or is an immigrant as if those labels completely define them?
Assigning labels condemns people to a marginalized purgatory. Perceived to be less than human, unable to love or feel pain, they’re relegated to the sidelines of life and deemed to be odd, bizarre, even dangerous.
The Bride Test, the romantic fiction novel by Helen Hoang, challenges this notion, that two outsiders, a young man on the autistic spectrum and a poor, village girl from Vietnam, are less than human.
Khai, a Silicon Valley accountant whose mother immigrated from Vietnam, struggles with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He believes he cannot love and has a heart of stone. His mother, a successful restauranteur, fears that Khai lacks the emotional savvy to attract American women. She travels to Vietnam in search of a bride for him, seeking an old-fashioned country girl.
In the women’s bathroom of an opulent Saigon hotel, Esme, the toilet-scrubbing maid, encounters a parade of crying, tight-skirted young women. An older woman, Co Nga, follows. Elegantly dressed and coiffed, Co Nga sits on the ladies’ lounge sofa, looking lost. Esme approaches her with concern.
Co Nga is struck by Esme’s kindness. She peppers Esme with questions about her mixed-race background and village origins. Esme answers openly and tells of the American father she’s never met. Esme’s candor brings a smile to Co Nga’s face. “I knew I liked you. Places make people.” (12)
Suddenly, Co Nga jolts Esme by asking her to come to Silicon Valley to meet, and possibly marry, her son Khai. She’d already rejected the fancy-clad, tearful women as marriage candidates. Too greedy. Too superficial.
At first, Esme refuses to go, suspicious of this startling offer. She lives as a single mother in a dirt-floored home with four generations of her family. However, the allure of a better life and the possibility of finding her father drive a change of heart. Esme goes to California.
Convincing Khai to welcome Esme into his rigid bachelor life is a harder sell. Co Nga shows up at his apartment, toting three boxes of mangoes, thirty pounds of spiky jackfruit, assorted lychees, and tropical rambutans. “Had his mother purchased him some manner of fruit-eating jungle monkey,” Khai wonders? (26) No. He soon learns the fruit is for Esme.
Khai flares at his mother’s marriage mission: “I’m not getting married. She’s not staying here.” But his mother prevails, saying “Tolerate some difficulty. It’ll make me happy.” (31)
In her author’s bio Helen Hoang shares two personal awakenings catalyzed by writing this book and The Kiss Quotient, published two years earlier.
Hoang’s main characters, trying to pass as normal, sprang from her keyboard. In social situations they’d practice eye contact, try on smiles, and rehearse topics to discuss. As her quirky characters emerged, Hoang had a revelation. She was writing about herself, a shy woman, on the autism spectrum with a Vietnamese immigrant mother.
Hoang’s second awakening came as she reviewed her first draft of The Bride Test. She’d downgraded the mother to a bit part. In a major pivot, “I asked myself why I’d automatically decided my heroine had to be ‘Westernized.’ Why couldn’t she have an accent, less education, and be culturally awkward?” (298-299)
Outsider characters star in this story. Esme, thanks to Hoang’s change of heart, has the lead role. With little formal education and ignorant of American ways, she encounters Khai, a creature of habit who eats dry breakfast bars, wears black clothes, and spurns social contact. He resents Esme’s intrusion into his private space.
Missteps tax this duo who are, alternately, put off and mystified by one another. They mis-perceive each other’s intentions. Yet, feelings of compassion and attraction seep in.
Tender and humorous episodes thread through this odd-couple story. Khai reviews the list of dos and don’ts for encountering women, drummed into his head by his family:
1. Carry everything. (That included her purse if she wanted. Never mind the fact that he preferred keeping his hands free.)
2. Give her your coat if she seems cold. (No, it didn’t matter if he was cold, too.)
*Specifically, boob, butt, and thighs (37)
3. No matter how she’s dressed, don’t check out inappropriate areas of her body.*
Esme’s stunning beauty and, according to Khai, her “Playboy bunny” (39) looks, overwhelm him. He fights off “porn thoughts” (39) and fails to follow the “rules” he’d been taught.
Esme is flummoxed by Khai. “He was easily the strangest person she’d ever met…he liked his wasteland of a yard and said the oddest things.” (47)
But, unexpectedly, Esme finds relief in Khai’s awkwardness and odd habits. They reassure her that she is not the only outsider. She learns that Khai likes firm, not light, touches. He lets her cut his shaggy hair. Tenderly, she applies just the right pressure.
Khai learns that Esme has “a sense of fairness that resonated with his.” Determined to improve herself and please Khai, Esme takes evening English classes. To his surprise Khai misses her. “The house felt empty…He checked the time a lot as he waited for her to walk through the door.” (109) Attending a family wedding with Khai, Esme overhears women guests belittle him. Infuriated and protective, she strikes out: “You don’t get to look down on anyone.” (151) That’s the author’s voice. She entreats us to see how we can crumble up unfamiliar people into little specks to be flicked away.
At its heart, this story is about two marginalized people who crave acceptance and love, but believe they are undeserving. Over time, tender feelings grow. We root for their romance to succeed. Esme and Khai show us that all people can love and be loved.