Print Edition - 2019-05-18  |  On Saturday

Lacking spark

  • ‘The Bride Test’ is a refreshing romance novel providing a variety of characters, but it is up to readers to decide if its autism angle is acute or obtuse.
- Richa Bhattarai, Kathmandu

May 18, 2019-

Vietnamese-American entrepreneur Co Nga is searching for a bride for her reluctant son, Khai Diep. After interviewing and rejecting a dozen impeccable beauties in Ho Chi Minh city, she chances upon Tran Ngoc My, cleaning toilets at a hotel. Nga makes Myan offer: travel to California, seduce her son, and marry him—all while working at Nga’s restaurant. If My is unable to persuade Khai, she will be sent back to Vietnam after her probation period.

Saddled with a daughter, mother and grandmother, and wanting a better future for them all, My agrees surprisingly quickly to the arrangement. Khai and My begin sharing a house and the latter tries to lure the man, but he seems unable to reciprocate. Another reason My agreed to visit California was to search for her father, who has been out of the picture for the past 24 years.

Improbable?Absolutely.Ridiculous? Perhaps. But engaging? Oh yes!

Helen Hoang’s second novel, The Bride Test, is an interesting addition to the romantic fiction genre. Not particularly because of its plot or any earthshattering experimentation, but for expanding the genre a bit more and giving a sparkle and novelty to the form. There is also something special in Hoang’s writing that provokes a medley of memories—old crushes and ardent loves, jealousy and obsession, desires and wants. There are few noteworthy dialogues but, somehow, Hoang gets the idea of love across.

Implausibility and cringe-worthy moments aside, the lives of the novel’s characters are both exciting and cover a wide spectrum of themes.

There are three things that make this work distinct. The first, an obvious abundance of Vietnamese characters and characteristics. They are rarely protagonists in popular fiction, particularly romance, which makes it all the more refreshing and interesting. It is disappointing, certainly, that the exploration of their culture, values and cuisine has been kept to a minimum, because everyone would benefit if more Vietnamese-ness permeated the book’s entirety. Even so, just branching out from white, upper-class, privileged beauties emits a whiff of freshness. The sight of lesser-heard and unfamiliar names is a delight as well. To many readers, it might also be a foothold into the literary pleasures of another country. This attempt at diversity, from an authentic source, shows us how important inclusion is—in life and literature.

The second and more important aspect of the novel is a protagonist diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Khai does not react to incidents and experiences like other, ‘normal’ people do, and thus considers himself deficient in some way. He’s brilliant and rational, but finds himself incapable of feeling. Hoang has talked widely of her own struggles with this neurodevelopmental disorder. In fact, her first novel, The Kiss Quotient, incited heated discussion about its protagonist’s unique condition. Stella, a mathmatecal genius with Asperger syndrome, cannot comprehend concepts of love and commitment. While the attempt to highlight the challenges of someone facing difficulties with social interaction and non-verbal communication was mostly appreciated, there was also debate over whether the representation was accurate, necessary, or even warranted.

The truthfulness of a particular disorder’s presentation on paper, especially something as sensitive as Asperger’s, will always be a matter of speculation. The possibility of denying, fetishising, or, worse, romanticising these alternate realities is a dw efinite threat. Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You, was criticised glorifying a paraplegic’s death-wish. Even in Beauty and the Beast, Beast’s character was criticised for its romantisation of loneliness-induced mental illness, which eventually leads to an abusive relationship. Intention matters so little when writing about such delicate topics because it is often not what the author wants to convey, but what the reader

perceives.

It will be up to each reader, particularly those diagnosed with autism themselves, or their families, to discern the nuances of his character. Reducing a person with Asperger’s to adjectives such as ‘shy’ and ‘stubborn’—is that really fair? For now, Hoang has not only created heroes in both her novels, but also brought this syndrome into public domain—this awareness and understanding will surely contribute to increased empathy, however minute.

Now, the third point of significance of the novel—its women are strong and enterprising. They run restaurants, evening classes, and households. They are proud and hardworking, and they speak their minds. They seek to better themselves, and try their best not to let men to run their lives. They love, but are not blinded by it. They may be vulnerable at times, but they can look after themselves. They rarely languish and moan and wither themselves away, as in typical romance novels. A lot of contemporary love-based literature has incorporated the empowered and determined woman motif, so it’s not exactly unique. It is enjoyable nonetheless. Hoang has mentioned her mother’s efforts, and eventually success, to provide a comfortable life for her children as an immigrant in America inspired this novel. And that resonates.

Where the novel falters is in the more routine aspects. The protagonists are incredibly, unbelievably, pretty people with fabulous bodies (eyeroll). The woman is still made to depend on a man for a more promising life. A child is of very little consequence to any of the characters. At certain points, the novel remains a faint copy of Crazy Rich Asians while, at others, it becomes a sex-education textbook, which is an unintentionally hilarious bore. Hoang attempts to titillate, but ends up being in-your-face and annoying with a kind of breathlessness permeating the entire work, with its only objective being sex between the protagonists. It’s easy to guess the ending as the novel begins, and from the halfway mark it is glaringly obvious. A little twist at the end is cute, but not very surprising.

Lovers of romance: pick this up if you are looking for something slightly different from regular fare. It is like watching an overtly theatrical movie, so make sure to suspend your disbelief while you race through it.

Published: 18-05-2019 09:02

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