My reservations and enthusiasm for Helen Hoang’s unique cross-cultural romance
The most interesting revelation in “The Bride Test” arrives in the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, when author Helen Hoang explains that she based the main character, Vietnamese immigrant Esme Tran, partly on the character of Hoang’s own mother.
“My mom is a legend in my family. Hers is a classic American dream story. At the end of the Vietnam War, she and my four older siblings (ages three through seven), my grandma and a handful of other relatives fled to the United States as war refugees. With no money, no connections, broken English, an eighth-grade education, and no help from the men in her life, she was able to work her way into owning not one, not two, not three, but four successful restaurants in Minnesota.”
This is an immigrant story I can understand, and this grounding — the fact that Esme is based on a real person — is maybe necessary in order to understand or at least contextualize some of the stranger things that happen in The Bride Test, Hoang’s romance novel follow-up to her incredibly successful The Kiss Quotient.
Hoang gave portions of her mother’s character to the novel’s protagonist, Mỹ (who later Americanizes her name to Esme). Mỹ first appears in the novel ala Cinderella, scrubbing toilets in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh, watching a stream of overdressed girls run sobbing into the bathroom and then out again. “Was the hotel having some kind of pageant?” Mỹ wonders. It’s not quite like that. Soon after, a well-dressed older woman enters. She takes a look at Mỹ, in her maid’s uniform, and pulls out a photo of a man from her purse. A “sexy wind-tossed” man, because this is a romance novel, after all. “Are you interested in marrying my Khải?” the woman asks.
Is this woman — an “overseas Vietnamese” — actually soliciting a bride for her son? In the bathroom of a hotel? From an absolute stranger? I recently read a book in which an undead general inhabits a new body in order to win a battle against his own resurrected younger self, and I honestly find that scenario more plausible. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a culture that practices arranged marriage. But that process involves priests and parents and elaborate matching of every data point except, perhaps, chemistry between the actual bride and groom. It certainly doesn’t involve this type of solo hotel pickup.
Khải and Cô live in California. Frustrated by her son’s refusal to find a girlfriend or a wife, Cô is in Viet Nam scouting potential brides — without her son’s knowledge or permission — even though he has repeatedly said he’s not interested. If Mỹ accepts, she will have one summer to persuade Khải to change his mind and marry her, or else she’ll be packed back to Viet Nam on the next plane.
There are several things that make this dynamic uncomfortable from jump. The first is the nonconsensual nature of it all. Khải has made it clear he’s not interested in his mom’s setups. Growing up, I knew the occasional parent who pursued arranged marriage setups despite their kid trying to opt out. The end results were usually uncomfortable for everyone involved, not least for the other half of the setup, who’d often arrive in good faith and expecting a date, only to be ambushed by someone who was disinterested, resentful, or unavailable. Nowadays, most parents won’t set someone up without their consent, precisely because they know it can end badly. So Cô’s actions are already suspect, and I kinda feel like maybe this entire book is really a romantic fantasy for meddlesome elders.
The other thing that makes me itch is the class disparity between these two. Hoang likes to play with relationships that cross class barriers. In the Kiss Quotient, a highly successful and educated career woman falls for a man who is neither of those things, but who makes her happy in a way her more expected Ivy League partners never did. On the one hand, it’s a reincarnation of Cinderella (or, more appropriately in this case, Pretty Woman.) There’s nothing wrong with that tale. But in this case, I’m painfully aware that Cô’s arrangement will put Mỹ in a position of extraordinary structural vulnerability. If she accepts, she’ll be alone in a country she doesn’t know at all, and entirely dependent — emotionally and financially — on a man she’s never seen and who doesn’t want her there. Growing up, I knew many women who immigrated to the United States through arranged marriage and made great lives here. But when it didn’t work — when a partner was unkind, or the match unsuccessful — it could often leave those women in a terrible position.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Mỹ — newly Christened Esme — decides to take the deal. When Cô breaks the news to Khải that she’s found him a wife, his brother, at least, takes her to task, noting that this feels like a mail-order bride situation. But Cô is perhaps too much of an Asian matriarch to doubt that she knows what’s best for these various young’uns. She decrees that the two must live together for the next few months, and try to make it work. When Khải begs for release from these setups, his mom agrees, but adds, “If I don’t see you trying to make it work, I’ll have to do it again. Do you understand?” Infuriating.
To be honest, it’s hard to hold out a lot of hope for Esme and Khải. Esme is warm, generous, and kind. She has the proportions of a “Playboy bunny,” a description I could perhaps have lived without, but which obviously piques Khải’s interest. It doesn’t help when Esme proceeds to do a series of utterly delightful and amazingly hilarious fish-out-of-water things: rearrange Khải’s socks, attempt to cut the weeds in his yard with a meat cleaver, and other shenanigans. Her confusion at America’s affordances is so pitch perfect that I wondered if some of these exact incidents happened in Hoang’s own family history.
I won’t give away too much of the rest of the plot, except to say that the scenes between these two are written with Hoang’s customary humanity and total avoidance of cliché. The sex scenes are affectionate, hilarious and human, in a way that sex scenes in romance novels almost never are.
In the Author’s Note, Hoang mentions that she originally intended for Esme to be a tertiary character, and for Khải to be primarily interested in another American-born woman.
“After careful self-analysis, I realized I’d been subconsciously trying to make my work socially acceptable, which was completely unacceptable to me as the daughter of an immigrant,” Hoang writes. But in a way, in making Esme’s romance-novel journey to America the focus of this story, Hoang gilds an immigration narrative that is often a lot more nuanced and fraught, as she herself knows. In order to write Esme, Hoang asked her mother what it felt like to immigrate.
“Through fresh tears, my mom told me about the blatant discrimination and sexism she faced in the workplace, about how she cried during her breaks but vowed to work even harder and prove herself.”
My own mother often laughs at how naively she arrived in America, unprepared for the discrimination and sexism that this country would throw at her. Esme, on the other hand, encounters few of these obstacles. She does attempt to strike out on her own, but despite her immense merit and amazing GED scores, she wins her residency via a plot twist that ultimately amounts to a wild and lucky coincidence in the book’s final pages. For those immigrants who have no such deus ex machina, the journey into America can be impossible, despite enormous merit. Living in both India and the United States, I’ve seen friends and family members play an expensive and heart-stopping process of visa roulette, with absolutely no guarantee of success. If I struggle with Esme’s story, it’s because it makes something that’s deeply unfair and difficult look easy.
The Bride Test, is, of course, a romance novel, not a nonfiction treatise arguing for immigration reform. But it’s hard to extricate injustice from immigration, since where we’re born is the ultimate circumstance of birth. That’s the whole point, and why Esme accepts this seemingly devil’s bargain in the first place. Hoang writes with candor and empathy about why Esme wants to immigrate and change her life, without trying to deify or vilify the desire. She offers an admiring portrait of Esme’s work ethic, but it’s hard for me to read this story knowing how often hard work is not enough.
It’s especially hard because this novel is as beautiful as the rest of Hoang’s work. There were moments when I cried, caught up in how fragile and tentative these characters’ hopes are. There were many moments when I laughed — one particularly memorable scene involves Khải soliciting sex advice from his brothers. (Really, it’s terrible, in the best way possible.)
To give Hoang the credit she absolutely deserves, she attempts to unspool some of the problems in this marriage story, partly by showing Esme taking on greater agency. Although Esme’s physical description (sweet, soft, small, constantly smiling) skews a little ‘mail order dream girl’, she owns her destiny. It’s impossible not to like her, and Khải deserves credit for looking past their superficial differences to their fundamental compatibility.
I liked this novel, and I liked it because it’s ambitious and difficult. Hoang could have written the easier novel she had in mind earlier — the one where Esme was the third side of a love triangle. She didn’t, and the story she wrote instead feels more authentic to who she is. It nods at the challenges of immigration and culture, even if it escapes dealing with their painful realities.