I have to start this review by being very honest and saying that I haven’t read a romance book in … well I can’t remember when. It’s not a genre I have been particularly drawn to but I thought it was time to cut it some slack and dip my toe into the ‘love story’ waters. I decided to go for contemporary romance and ended up with The Bride Test. And I will say that, for me, it was a story in two parts that in many instances, didn’t mix well together. One particular part I liked a lot and the other … not at all.
The Bride Test is a story of Khai (a Vietnamese American man) who has not yet found love or a partner. The catch is he doesn’t want to, much to the chagrin of his mother (his brother has no problem with attracting those of the opposite sex). And no – Khai is not gay. He is on the autism spectrum and this influences how he lives and the decisions he makes. A tragedy earlier in his life made him believe he cannot love, so he has abandoned that part of his existence. His mother, however, is determined to change his single status. On a trip to Vietnam she convinces a young woman, Esme, to travel to America to live with Khai for the summer in the hope that they will fall in love and marry. Esme has her own reasons for agreeing to this plan. She is a poor single mother who wants a better life for her daughter and sees that possibility becoming a reality in America. But both Esme and Khai have a lot to learn about each other and themselves if this situation is going to work. Esme also harbors a dream of finding her father, an American man whom she has never met before and for whom she only a faded photograph to guide her.
Now for a romance book I was startled and frankly blown away by the very beginning. Quite simply, this book has one of the most heartbreaking and emotional openings to any book I have ever read. I don’t want to spoil it too much by giving too many details but boy, it had my bottom lip quivering. And this is somewhat ironic considering what the opening is about – Khai at the funeral of his cousin and best friend, Andy. Remember he is autistic so he is emotionally distant compared to everyone else around him. This is all the more stark due to the circumstances. We, as the reader, are very emotional at the same time that Khai is unemotional, a state that he himself recognises but is unable to change or alter. It is here that he convinces himself that he is incapable of loving people. It’s such a gut wrenching realisation for a human being to find their way to. I really felt for him and his disconnect with those around him.
But this wasn’t the only moment of emotional intensity. There is a sequence where Esme wants to cut his hair and Khai has to explain his condition to her – how to touch him in ways that won’t trigger his emotions or responses, those that come with being autisitc. I thought that was very tender. And the moment when Khai finally faces the circumstances surrounding Andy’s death, what that event meant to him and how it made him feel (or not), well that was very raw and exposing.
But to be very frank these moments were quite out of step with other parts of the book. What do I mean? Well we got lots of sequences and moments where we were informed about Khai’s physical reaction to Esme. I guess it was all to show the situation of Khai’s mind vs his body, but I really didn’t want to be told over and over again what his penis was doing. I had to stop reading and reorientate myself, I found it all so odd especially when compared to the deeply human and emotional moments. It was a conflict in tone that I was never able to reconcile.
You’ll notice that I have mentioned Khai much more than Esme. This is not because she was unsympathetic or badly portrayed, but for me it was a case of being able to see his point of view better. It was more just interesting to see his perspective on the world.That’s because I empathised and felt connected with him and elements of his character. Being honest, there were times when he felt a lot like me. His need for order and structure. Not wanting to have others interfere with his routine. Wanting to be in control of his life and resenting people meddling in his affairs. So it was very easy for me to feel annoyance at the way people pushed him to do things he wasn’t comfortable with. There were several moments when I felt like yelling … will you just leave him alone! I didn’t though. I was torn in a way. I didn’t want him to be lonely especially if, deep down, he wanted companionship, but I felt it was almost cruel and manipulative to put him in the position they did.
And strangely for a romance book I wasn’t interested in any way in the ‘happily ever after’ between Khai and Esme. In fact the ending felt all too much like a collection of standard stupid romance tropes. They get together. They break up. Almost marrying the brother. Crashing a wedding. Meeting and immediately accepting Esme’s hitherto secret daughter. The bunch of fluffy ducks epilogue.I didn’t buy it and was never convinced. I thought it was a betrayal of Khai’s character and his condition. I did want Khai to be happy but in a way that was acceptable to him – not something that was forced onto him. I hated the fact that his mother’s plan worked.
Now one of the points that I think was supposed to be this big heart eyes moment was when Khai finally said the words … I Love You. Surprise surprise … I didn’t like it. And I didn’t even think the declaration was meant for Emse. To me the meaning of this was not connected to her but to Andy, because it was at that moment that Khai finally released himself from his self imposed prison. It was his way of forgiving himself for Andy’s death, something that he blamed himself for (on the day it happened he had asked if Andy wanted to come over and hang out … Andy was on his way on his motorbike when he got hit by a truck). That was what those words represented to me – Kahi telling Andy how he felt.
In a way I actually would have liked it to be a book just about Khai and his experience as an autistic man struggling to fit in with his family’s expectations as well as his journey through his grief and reaction to the death of his cousin. This of course would have made it an entirely different book altogether, certainly not a romance book. But for me, Khai and that journey were the strongest parts of the book.
When trying to decide whether to read this book I did look at some reviews of it which bemoaned the lack of chemistry between Khai and Esme but I think this might be a bit unfair. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt and say that she may have deliberately written it that way as a consequence of Khai’s condition. That stiffness and distance were the way he expressed himself. He had no real experience with women so that alongside his autism meant he didn’t react the same way as other people to intimate moments or just the everyday way of relationships. Interestingly when I glanced through the acknowledgments I saw that the author used sensitivity readers so I am assuming that the way Khai and his autism were portrayed were accurate.
I will also like to add that I found the storyline with Esme’s father was too over the top for me and I think the book didn’t really need it. It wasn’t given enough time or space on the page to do it justice.
So like I said … conflicted feelings about this one. Some of it I enjoyed. The rest I wasn’t really fussed on or should I say had no real feelings about either way. As a romance book I don’t think it was successful and I didn’t really bond or get involved with that part of the story. As a reunion story between father and daughter it was terrible. As a story about an autisitc man forgiving himself … much better.
Rating: 3 stars (solely based on Khai’s part of the story).
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)