The Bride Test by Helen Hoang. Berkeley. 2019. Read by Emily Woo Zeller.
Content Warning for review: Review discusses ableism and internalized ableism within the structure and content of the story, at length. Review discusses sexual and romantic coercion and manipulation at length, and references the general pressure towards compliance that many autistic folks are trained to, obliquely referencing torture “therapies” like ABA.
Note: I do not recommend this book for autistic readers or aromantic spectrum readers.
I will admit, despite the many rave reviews, I did not go into reading this book with positive expectations. As an autistic reader, I found book one in this series (The Kiss Quotient) deeply painful and harmful to read for me personally, because of the intense self loathing of the main character, the way she is completely isolated as an autistic person and faces ableism from pretty much everyone, and her attempts to cure herself of her autism. I had other issues with the book, but they aren’t relevant to the expectations I brought to reading The Bride Test. What is more relevant is the book description. I found myself incredibly troubled by the ableism in it, particularly the way it presented the autistic MC as seeing himself as having no feelings, “defective”, incapable of love and relationships, but learning he is wrong via the love of a good woman, basically. The book description itself is hurtful and full of ableism, and I was anticipating a book that would be equally hurtful to me as an autistic reader.
What I found was a bit less straightforward, but still quite troubling and painful for me as an autistic reader, which I discuss at length later on in this review. First, I want to talk about what worked for me in the story.
Esme was a complex heroine, deeply characterized, very compelling, and the chapters from her POV are completely riveting. Her character is grappling with high stakes throughout the entire story, and has a lovely personal arc around her opening up what it feels possible to dream and achieve. Her motivations are layered and resonant, from the secret baby to supporting her family to finding her father to building her future, and witnessing her falling for Khai is rather intense, angsty and beautiful. Her characterization and arc show that Hoang has serious writing abilities & can really craft a romance. That aspect of the story made me want to continue to try her books.
This contemporary m/f romance has several core tropes: mail order bride, matchmaking/interfering family, secret baby, forced proximity, and what I often think of as a ticking clock trope (there’s a limited timeframe before they lose their chance at love), and delivered on those tropes well. The audio performance was truly wonderful; Emily Woo Zeller is a brilliant performer and she made the story really come to life. There are some lovely swoony moments in the romance arc, and it totally made sense why each of them might fall for the other. I also really liked the way the story resolved Esme’s need for a green card, and really liked Esme’s relationship with Khai’s mother, her daughter, and folks at school.
My core issue with this romance is that it places Khai’s autism as both conflict and obstacle for the entire romance arc. Not just his self loathing and internalized ableism around being autistic, but also his actual autistic experience and needs. What is particularly frustrating about this is that Khai tells Esme he is autistic and makes it clear that this is an important piece of information, and unlike the word ridiculous, which she immediately looks up, she ignores this and does no research. A smart woman who researches everything does no research, asks no questions, decides that it’s not important, and doesn’t even consider that it might explain things until someone else brings it up to her and tells her it’s important near the end of the book. So, aside from everything else, in order for most of the plot, the conflicts, the miscommunications and obstacles to the romance to even exist, the heroine has to act completely out of character.
It was so painful to witness the way Khai’s autism was constantly set up to cause conflict, miscommunication and create obstacles for the romance. It made me want to shriek in frustration, and I stimmed a lot as I listened to this audiobook, just to get through it. If it had been a physical object I’m certain I would have thrown it in frustration multiple times. This story makes so much about his autism a huge problem/obstacle/source of miscommunication and conflict: his sensory sensitivity, his touch aversion, the ways that he needed routine to be functional, the ways that he needed things to stay in the same place and position in his home, the ways he understood and made language for emotion, his meltdowns, his difficulties with communication, his lack of knowledge about social cues and expectations, his difficulty reading other people’s emotions, his emphasis on logic and rightness as a framework for understanding things.
These characters are set up in a way where Esme is constantly slamming into Khai’s autism like it’s a wall she wants to break it down. He doesn’t want to change her, he just wants to make her happy, to understand what she needs, to give her what she needs. But she constantly is trying to change everything about him, and this is framed in such a compassionate way, with such deep POV, that the story basically sets you up to root for her, while his autistic perspective and needs are thinly drawn, and barely characterized, and mostly presented without context or framing, even in his POV chapters. Khai is constantly reduced to his autism in the ways he is characterized. You barely get a sense of him at all otherwise, except for his sexual attraction to Esme, a bit of his grief arc, and his sense of obligation to family.
It made me so sad to read this, because not only is Khai stewing in his own internalized ableism and self loathing and sense of himself as “defective,” he doesn’t even get to have any special interests or any experience of autistic joy or righteous anger at the ableism he experiences. He has no sensory stims he actually likes or other autistic people in his life to connect to, or anyone in his life that trusts him to know himself and know what he needs. Even when he directly asks for supports like a script for an apology, the allistic people in his life refuse. Everyone, from his mother to his brother to Esme, all are convinced they know better than him about what he wants and needs and experiences, and the book agrees with them, sets things up so they are right. Because the saddest thing of all is that after reading, I feel like the book itself believes Khai’s autistic self is the obstacle that must be overcome in order for him to have a happy ending with Esme.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the story is the way it deals with Khai’s touch aversion and sensory needs around touch. It goes from having his touch aversion violated to him setting boundaries around touch to him communicating more about okay ways to touch him to him giving Esme carte blanche in touching him with a couple of exceptions. It basically frames his touch aversion as a thing that is responsive to building trust and his own will, which didn’t feel realistic to me (and definitely doesn’t match my own experience of touch aversion). So I went from really resonating with the depiction of touch aversion to feeling like the story was telling me that with the right person my needs around touch would basically fade, or at least they should. Which was super frustrating because it’s rare for me to find descriptions of touch aversion that resonate so much.
What was going with touch aversion and boundary pushing was a more general issue in this book. Esme, along with the other folks in Khai’s life, attempt to and are largely successful at manipulating, coercing, and generally strongarming him into doing and tolerating a bunch of things that he says no to/refuses/is clear that he doesn’t want, including: co-sleeping, receiving touch, sexual activity, co-habitation, eating things he hates, changing many things about his home and routine, expressing emotion, defining and describing his feelings, professing romantic love. This coercion and manipulation are a constant feature of the story, embedded in almost every scene, and that includes some really intense sexualization and sexual pressure on Esme’s part, (highlight to read) both in the beginning as she’s attempting to seduce him and later on when she blatantly and directly uses sex to try to manipulate him into saying he loves her. None of this coercion and manipulation is challenged textually and these actions are generally framed as loving and good.
What’s particularly upsetting about this is that autistic folks are often taught intense compliance from a very young age, both via “therapies” that are basically torture and by the actions of powerful authority figures in their lives like teachers, doctors, family members and therapists. This makes autistic folks particularly vulnerable to coercion and manipulation, as we have often been taught repeatedly that its easier/causes us less pain just to agree and go along with things. The kind of situation like (highlight to read) the sexual abuse by Esme where she deliberately sexually arouses him via touch and dangling sex in front of him like a carrot and tries to feed him the script of what to say to coerce him to tell her he loves her is particularly exploitative and hurtful to read when you know Khai is autistic and especially vulnerable to that kind of coercive behavior.
Khai gets pressured a tremendous amount by both Esme and his brother to tell her that he loves her, and this is supposedly justified by the idea that they know better than him what he feels and that his sense that he is not capable of romantic love is false and based on internalized ableism and a need to protect himself from being vulnerable to emotional pain. That’s the narrative that the book offers. But one of the things that story assumes is that everyone experiences romantic love, so the things Khai feels must be that. If you actually hold a worldview that allows for the existence of aromantic spectrum people, this romantic coercion takes on a different edge. What if Khai’s sense that he wants to be with her, needs her in his life, wants to live with her and share his home with her, misses her when she’s not there and loves spending time with her, would do everything he could to make her happy and protect her from harm, desires her and wants a sexual relationship with her…what if we take all of how he sees his feelings as actually true? Including the fact that he does not love her. Sounds like a lot of relationships that allosexual aromantic spectrum folks might want, feelings they might have, to me as an arospec (demiro) reader. How is any of what he wants and feels less than or not enough? His brother goes to great lengths to convince him that all those things, and the devastation that he feels (highlight to read) when she leaves him, mean that he is in love with her. But really, there is no way for anyone to know better than him how he feels, and it made me feel ill to witness both his brother and Esme try to coerce him into saying he loved her when he very clearly felt that he did not.
I did appreciate the description of autistic grief in the story, as grief can be so different for many autistic folks, and I felt like it really resonated. I was frustrated that Khai’s brother basically had to explain his autistic grief experience to him in order for him to recognize it. The grief arc was one of the things that I felt worked the best in Khai’s characterization, and gave him a bit more depth.
The book description presents this as: Khai thinks he is defective and incapable of love because he’s autistic but his family and Esme teach him that in fact he can love, it just looks a bit different. But in fact, the book I read would be more aptly described as: Khai’s autistic experience and sense of self is a major obstacle and cause of conflict to him having a romantic relationship; it eventually gets overcome with the help of his family and Esme. The first is a self acceptance narrative that I was steeled for, but dreading. The second feels even more deeply ableist and harmful, particularly because it included so much coercion and manipulation. It made this an incredibly painful read.
- Vietnamese American autistic man MC
- Vietnamese immigrant woman MC
- Vietnamese American autistic woman author
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Intense internalized ableism. Autistic character constantly having boundaries violated and experiencing a ton of coercion, pressure and manipulation, including romantic and sexual coercion, pressure and manipulation. Romantic relationship set up without consent. Subtantial power differential based on poverty and immigration status. Death of a close family member in a car accident. Grief arc. Sex on the page.
- Source of the book: audiobook borrowed from the San Francisco Public library via Hoopla
- I have had no contact with the author.
- All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.
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