Helen Hoang's The Bride Test
This was my first Helen Hoang novel and you all: I. Am. Hooked. The Bride Test is such a delightfully cute, sweet, romantic read -- absolutely perfect for kicking off the summer reading season.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Digital ARC from the publisher
Read Harder challenge
Hoang has been on my radar since her debut of The Kiss Quotient: I'd been given a copy right at release and my book club ended up reading it (although I missed club that month and didn't get to read it!). My plan was to read it for this year's Read Harder challenge task 13 (a book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse) but I was granted an ARC of The Bride Test and the rest is history.
I honestly didn't know how Hoang would make this novel work. The hero, Khai, believes himself to be utterly incapable of feeling love toward anyone and has resigned himself to life without companionship (and at the start of the novel, seems to be pretty happy with his life). Our heroine, Esme, comes to the US at the request of Khai's mother, and she ends up living with Khai on (I presume) a tourist visa while working at the mother's restaurant. She's a single mother and has to leave her daughter with her family in Vietnam on the hope and a prayer that she might find love with this man she's never met.
Hoang makes it expressly clear how Esme isn't beholden to Khai or his mother, however, and that's what makes the story work. I really could not fathom how a natural, authentic romance could bloom between Esme and Khai when it seemed Esme had so much to lose and so much at risk, but Hoang made it work. Throughout the novel, Esme has opportunities she seizes on, ways to empower herself, take care of herself, and exert agency over herself, and it makes the eventual HEA between her and Khai all the sweeter.
And while rags-to-riches/Cinderella plot lines aren't unique in romance, I don't think we see many stories in mainstream media that offer that narrative to anyone who isn't a thin, white lady. And I love that. In her Author's Note, Hoang makes it clear that her own mother was part of the inspiration for Esme's story which made me feel a bit like this book was a love letter to her mother. It also made clear for me why Esme was so vibrantly realized. (My only critique of this novel was that we didn't get to know Khai as well as Esme, which might have been impossible given the deep well Hoang was drawing from in creating Esme.)
What I loved most about this book -- and why I'm so digging romances by authors of color -- is that people who are truly worthy of love find it. Unlike, say, Nazi romances (there's no reason ever to write a redemption arc for a Nazi, we're agreed on that, right??), novels by Hoang and Alyssa Cole make it abundantly clear that people of color, non-neurotypical people, cash poor people, and/or individuals who hold an identity often under attack all need, deserve, and eventually achieve the joy-in-your-chest-tears-in-your-eyes happy ending at the center of so many romance novels. When the news demonstrates daily a world that doesn't center and value those folks, books like this are crucial. Folks need to see themselves in happy ever afters and I'm grateful for the authors who are telling these stories.