I liked this quite a bit, maybe even more than the first one. It still featured miscommunication as one of the central conflicts, but with one of the characters being autistic, and the other being from another country, I feel like here it’s actually justified, and it didn’t really bother me. (It still bothered me a little in The Kiss Quotient, even though Stella was on the spectrum as well. Also, that book featured a couple of other tropes that didn’t sit well with me, and there was none of that here.)
Khai believes he can’t fall in love and that he doesn’t have feelings like other people do (he never even cried when his cousin Andy died, and Andy was his best friend), so he doesn’t date, and he certainly has no plans of ever getting married. This distresses his mother, who badly wants grandbabies, so she goes back to Vietnam to find him a wife. There she finds My (who takes the American name Esme for a large portion of the novel). She is a young unwed mother from one of the poorest parts of the country, and Khai’s mother finds her while she’s cleaning the bathroom of a fancy hotel. She shows her Khai’s picture, and offers to bring her to America for two months in order to try and convince Khai to marry her. Esme agrees, mostly for the chance to offer her daughter a more secure life and to do something other than clean toilets for the rest of her life, but also because Khai is extremely handsome.
There was a lot to like about this book. I have never read a romance where one of the parties is autistic, or where one is an immigrant, but this book has both. There are so many sources of built in conflict in their pairing, from language to cultural differences, to Khai’s mental state and lack of social skills/awareness (he’s very set in his ways, hasn’t bothered to learn anything about dating, and has emotional walls miles high). Khai’s family tells Esme right away that he’s autistic, but she doesn’t know what that means (this is kind of glossed over, but it seems that awareness of autism might not be very high in Vietnam?) and mostly takes it to mean that Khai is different.
There are some misunderstandings, but most of them are cleared up right away, and once Khai knows his autism is creating conflict in a given situation, he’s pretty adept at helping Esme to navigate his various sensory issues (he can’t stand light touches, which feel painful to him, among other things). The best example of this is after he and Esme have sex for the first time; Khai is thinking something very different about it than Esme is afterwards, and watching him navigate that (he goes to his brother for help!) and communicating with Esme about what he learns was one of the best parts of the book. Khai is also very lovable, so watching his process of self-discovery here was a highlight of the book*. Esme is just kind of a little badass. Hoang says in the author’s note that a large portion of Esme’s story is based on that of her mother’s, and I’m sure that’s part of the reason that Esme comes across as such a courageous, hard-working and yet still emotionally vulnerable character.
*(Sample dialogue: “Quan gave him an impatient look. “Did you touch her clit at all?”
“Oh hell,” Michael said.
Quan smacked his palm to his forehead. “Her clitoris. It’s where you stimulate her to make her come.”
“Where is it?”
Quan rubbed both hands over his face as Michael repeated, “Oh hell.”)
I’m very interested to see what Hoang will do with the next book in this series, which is supposed to feature Khai’s brother, Quan, who is much more of a traditional romance type character than she’s written so far (not neuroatypical, handsome, charming). I’m sure she’ll find a way to make it unique.
Read Harder Challenge 2019: A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse.
CBR Bingo: Own Voices (Helen Hoang is on the autism spectrum disorder.)