“What. Had. His Mom. Been. Thinking.” Young men the world over have had this thought, but for most it doesn’t occur after their mother, arms laden with litchis, pops out of her Camry and announces that she’s flown in a surprise fiancee for them, that said fiancee will be arriving imminently from Vietnam, that their wedding is conveniently scheduled in a few months and, oh, all the fruit is for the future bride! Wouldn’t want her to feel dépaysé or anything.
Such is the fate of Khai Diep, the Vietnamese American protagonist of Helen Hoang’s “The Bride Test.” As with her debut novel, “The Kiss Quotient,” Hoang’s protagonist is autistic and romantic relationships don’t come with ease. For Khai, this difficulty has nothing to do with his appearance or intellect — he’s gorgeous, and a very successful accountant in Silicon Valley. His struggle is with his heart — he’s convinced he’s simply unable to love.
Thanks to his mother’s matchmaking by fire, Esme Tran enters his life, but he’s sure it’s a lost cause. Mother and son have agreed that Esme will live with Khai for the summer, ending with an “I do,” but if it’s all a disaster, Esme will just head home. Khai’s already planning that return trip. He likes his solitary life just fine, and he’s sure that Esme will be “a younger replica of his mom, complete with matching sweatsuits and the sriracha and hoisin sauce she always kept in her purse.” Esme is anything but. A young, mixed-race woman whom his mother met at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, Esme has been working as a maid to help support four generations of family, including her young daughter. She’s hungry to provide them with a better life and, when faced with the proposal, can’t say no. Her mother’s words — “Just do it. Do whatever you have to. It’s America.” — ring loudly, as does the fact that her American father, whom she has never met, has ties to Northern California.
Will it be a case of mother knows best or a catastrophic mess? Turns out, as in any good contemporary romance, it’s a humorous mix of highs and lows. The first high is that Esme is hot. Like really hot. Even when she’s gardening in a pair of MC Hammer pants she looks gorgeous. The chemistry between the pair is instantaneous; the difficulty comes as they try to work out their cultural and emotional differences, the secrets Esme’s keeping — her daughter, her career — adding more complexity. But Esme’s charm has little to do with looks. It’s her devotion to Khai, her ease with his emotions and her desire to better herself through higher education that make it obvious why his mother chose her.
With “The Bride Test,” Hoang has again shown readers the importance of representation in literature, while also creating a sexy, compassionate story about the power of love and the enduring American Dream.
Karin Tanabe, a former Politico reporter, is the author of four novels, including “The Diplomat’s Daughter.”
By Helen Hoang
Berkley. 320 pp. $15