Helen Hoang brought a special kind of magic to that guilty pleasure, the romance genre, with The Kiss Quotient. Would her second time around with a neurodiverse cast of characters fare as well?
The Author: Helen Hoang
The Rating: 3/5
Year Read: 2019
Read Harder, 2019: #13. A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse
Read Harder Journal: #2. A book you would normally consider a guilty pleasure
PopSugar Reading Challenge, 2018: #3. The next book in a series you started
PopSugar Reading Challenge, 2019: #44. Read a book during the season it is set in
Can a guilty pleasure also be enlightening?
For Read Harder Journal task #2: A book you would normally consider a guilty pleasure, I knew exactly which genre I would be choosing from.
I don’t typically indulge in guilty pleasures of the literary kind, but I made an exception when it came to Helen Hoang’s first novel, The Kiss Quotient. Last winter, the book was all over #bookstagram and constantly waitlisted in Overdrive. When I saw it available at the library—in hard copy! The first hard copy book I’d read in I don’t know how long—I picked it up.
One of the more unique aspects of The Kiss Quotient was the heroine, who identified as being on the autism spectrum. The author herself identifies on the spectrum, and she has stated that her perspective shaped the heroine’s point of view.
In Hoang’s second romance novel, The Bride Test, she revisits familiar characters from The Kiss Quotient as she brings to life the old adage, “love conquers all.”
Two strangers, each navigating a strange world, find love
Khai is a man living with autism in the Bay Area. Financially secure, physically fit, and handsome, he appears to all to be the epitome of success. However, to his traditional Vietnamese mother, Khai is still falling short, since he is unmarried and uninterested in the prospect.
Esme is a struggling single mother in Vietnam, working housekeeping jobs to keep her family afloat. Sweet and caring, a failed romance with her daughter’s father has soured her on the idea of love—but not on the idea of a marriage, which represents the promise of a better life for her family.
When Khai’s mother meets Esme, she sees the perfect match for her son. They strike a deal: She will bring Esme to the United States, arrange for her to move in with Khai to “test drive” marriage, and give her three months to woo him into the real thing.
Esme accepts the challenge but the deal isn’t as simple as it seems. Navigating the United States without a formal education or much knowledge of the language poses a challenge. Understanding Khai, with his unfamiliar way of relating to her, is also difficult. And getting him to fall in love with her? Definitely not as easy as she thought it would be.
Both Khai and Esme have to navigate a world in which they feel out of place. The heartbeat of the novel comes through as these two manage against all odds to find their way to each other.
He was strange and tactless and very possibly an assassin, but when she looked at his actions, all she saw was kindness. Cô Nga had been right. Khải was good stuff. Very, very good stuff.
Learning to love on the spectrum
Khai isn’t the (neuro)typical romantic hero. While many a modern romantic hero doubts his capacity for love and struggles to express his feelings, Khai’s challenges stem from more than mere machismo.
When Khai shares his diagnosis with Esme, she doesn’t even know what the term means. Through a series of shared moments and misunderstandings, Esme learns what it means to give and receive love in a way that makes sense for Khai. The differences are not just emotional, but physical—in terms of even ways to touch his arm—and verbal.
This learning and exploration not only helps bring the characters’ depths to life; their journey also gives the reader a glimpse into different ways of loving and expressing connection and need.
This was nothing like that. Esme didn’t smell like gym socks and man sweat, and her curves fit into his hollows, soft to hard, smooth to rough, the perfect debit to his credit.
Soulful. Playful. Charming.
Helen Hoang knows how to write an enjoyable romance novel. She has a lively, engaging writing style that keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. Her characters, while perhaps not deeply textured, are warm and captivating—the kind of characters you tend to root for with your whole heart.
Hoang treats the love scenes—hallmarks of the genre—playfully, with a style that incorporates equal measures of smolder and humor. (Still, some readers may wish to skip over these parts—the story won’t suffer for it.)
One of the reasons I enjoy reading Hoang’s work, even though I am not much of a fan of the genre, is because her stories celebrate the power of love and relationships. While her neurodiverse characters tend to eschew the benefits of romantic connection, they eventually come around, which leaves the reader with a feeling of hope and optimism.
I gave this book 3 stars for a light read that put a smile on my face.
“My heart works in a different way, but it’s yours. You’re my one.”
Giving in to the guilty pleasure
It feels so good at the moment, but afterward: the shame. Giant piece of chocolate blackout cake or a modern romance novel?
Fair comparison? Maybe. After all, these novels have neither the ambition nor the power to change the world. They’re meant to be a diversion from real life, an escape from the everyday ho-hum, a brief visit to a world where impossibly good looking people handily overcome every negative circumstance, with their fleshy urges still intact.
But Hoang elevates the form to an art and makes every word such a joy to read. Her deep love and respect for the genre come through in every word. Her novels are just pure, perfect romances. Something so good can’t be wrong.
The diversity among her cast of characters—neurologically, ethnically, professionally—also works so well. I enjoyed the glimpse into what the next stage in the evolution of the modern romance novel might look like. (It also gave me the ability to task another Read Harder challenge task off my list.)
Everyone deserved to love and be loved back. Everyone. Even her. Cô Nga rubbed Esme’s back like she was shredding carrots. “Here, here, you’ll always be my Precious Girl. Always.”
Should you read The Bride Test?
Readers who liked The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang’s previous novel, should absolutely pick up this second in the series. The beloved main characters from the first book make a cameo in The Bride Test, although their appearance is purely ancillary to the story.
Fans of modern romance novels will also likely enjoy The Bride Test. It’s got all the elements you’d expect, with a diverse twist.
There are some rather racy scenes in the book, so readers who appreciate a little more left to the imagination may want to skip a few (or more than a few) pages or leave this book on the shelf.
This is not a bride test
Have you read The Bride Test? What did you think of the love story between Khai and Esme?
If you also read The Kiss Quotient, did you see similarities in the way the central relationships in the two books developed?
Would you have chosen a modern romance for a guilty pleasure? What book would you (or did you) choose for the Read Harder Journal Task: #2. A book you would normally consider a guilty pleasure?
Read and reflect with me
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Excerpts from The Bride Test.