I have made NO secret of just how much I love M.Q. Barber’s Neighborly Affection series. It is my ultimate comfort read (and I have many of those). I have lost count of how many nights I have stayed up with Alice, Henry and Jay until the wee hours of the morning. And never once have I regretted it.
The series follows Alice, a determined engineer and bit of loner, who gets introduced to the kinky, poly, queer lifestyle of her two male neighbors after moving into a new building. What builds after that introduction is a fierce love, a grounded commitment and a truly aspirational relationship. Separately and together, I love this triad.
Today, September 18th, was the release of the newest book in the series, Binding Their Hearts, which picks up after Henry and Alice have had a harrowing weekend thinking Jay was lost to them forever in Minding Their Manners. If you want to know how I handled the absolute BEAST that was the villain in that book, please see my overly emotional TikTok about it.
I got to read Binding Their Hearts early, and MAN was it a balm! This one may be the MOST comfy of all the comfiness of my favorite comfort series. I finished it, and immediately went back for more.
There is an unwavering perspicacity to Barber’s voice in this series: each POV character – whether Alice, Jay or Henry – is providing the reader with a shrewd examination of their own humanity and, more importantly, how that enhances the health and happiness of their loved ones. I’ve said before that the three of them love each other SO well that it’s almost trinitarian: a constant filling up of one another’s soul so that it spills over to the next, and so on, without fail.
And in Binding Their Hearts, the unique way that Barber explores their love for one another becomes replete. I read, and was sated. If you’re looking for the kind of romance that not only brings steaminess, but leaves nothing for the reader to wish for, nothing to miss out on, but instead gives you all the feelings you didn’t even know you wanted, Neighborly Affection is it.
Interview with the Author
Recently, M.Q. Barber was gracious enough to sit down and answer some questions for me about the series, her inspiration, her recommendations, and yes, where she sees things going down the road. M, thank you so much for taking the time to indulge me and the rest of your fans at The Cool Table. Here’s our interview.
First, the chicken or the egg question. I’ve always wondered where the original inspiration for Neighborly Affection came from. Did you dream up Henry, the patient, obsessive caretaker first and then fill his home with two people for him to love well? Was it the allure of the arrangement: a poly triad where each person’s love for the other enhances them all? Was it the mystery of figuring out her neighbors’ relationship, ie was it Alice? Or something else altogether?
Oooh, dangerous question. I could talk about that for hours. The very first piece of the Neighborly Affection universe that I wrote was Chapter 3 of Playing the Game. The characters felt so real, with such richly defined personalities. They fascinated me with the delicate dance of the dinner party and the calculation in that pivotal moment of decision.
For me, that initial burst of story encapsulated the moments we all face in life (maybe not quite like Alice does!) when opportunity presents itself. Can we overcome our fear of the unknown? Can we trust enough to take the risk? The series grew out of answering the question: What are the rewards and consequences of saying yes? Where does that openness and vulnerability lead us?
Luckily, Henry, Alice, and Jay were delighted to keep telling me their answers.
The first three novels were fully Alice’s. Naturally, the story moved out of her perspective as it expanded, but how did it feel to branch out into writing Jay and Henry’s POVs? Who do you find the most challenging to write? And, do you think you’ll ever go back and write those early days from Henry’s perspective like we have some of Jay’s?
Alice’s voice felt like the natural choice at the beginning of the series because it’s her journey of discovery, right? Neighborly Affection is a romance, and a pretty steamy romance at that, but it’s also about personal growth and finding ourselves and reshaping our identity when the person we thought we were doesn’t fit anymore. In that way, the series is more like women’s fiction, exploring all of the complicated emotions around becoming who we are.
But the journey isn’t only hers. And while I think we get a lot of how Henry and Jay are feeling through what they say and do, we’re limited to what happens in Alice’s presence. We can’t be inside their experience until we get inside their heads. So they kept insisting, more and more loudly, that they wanted to share pieces of the broader story that we couldn’t see any other way.
That’s how the stories that ended up in Tuesdays with Jay and Other Stories were born. It was Henry wanting to show us his longing for connection in that wait for a knock that never comes. It was Jay wanting to show us all of his dedicated service to fostering their relationship through his lunches with Alice. (Those in the community who attend munches, you know how crucial those bonds outside the playroom are, when you aren’t in a high-tension situation. That deep friendship can create the safety net that lets you count on those people when it matters.)
And it was ultimately that insistence that led to writing Becoming His Master in Henry’s perspective. An MM prequel as the fourth book in an MMF series might be an unexpected choice. But I did it because Henry needed us to know those things, and he wasn’t really willing to open up and talk about that time in his life until Jay’s breakthrough in Healing the Wounds. And all of those experiences in Becoming His Master prepare us for Finding Their Balance, as Alice is stepping into a world and a role she doesn’t entirely understand yet — but she’s determined to do right by Jay.
Minding Their Manners brought Henry and Jay’s voices into the main thread because now all three members of the trio are on a new journey of discovery. It’s not just Alice’s introduction to this world; it’s a new phase in their lives of “How will we exist as a triad? What does this look like for us?” It would have been impossible, especially in the second half of that book, to tell the story and do it justice without showing everything Henry and Jay are going through, too.
(This is the point where I stop and say: Wait, what was I answering? I told you at the beginning it was dangerous to ask me questions about this series!)
So it’s not that one point of view is more challenging than another. Henry, Alice, and Jay have distinct voices and personalities that all come equally naturally. When I’m writing a chapter, I’m starting with how they feel and what matters most to them about what’s happening. What will they notice? How will they react?
An example: The opening of Minding Their Manners is set at the airport, and it’s in Henry’s perspective. But the first version of that chapter, which I’d written much earlier, was from the perspective of Alice’s sister. I needed to know her experience of it so I could understand her, because her behavior plays into the things that Henry notices and how he shapes his approach to building that family relationship. Henry’s chapter is richer because I spent time considering it from another point of view.
I do that a lot. Not always to the point of writing a chapter two or three ways, but sometimes. Which is all a very, very long way of saying: Yes, I have absolutely, more than once, considered going back and writing those early days from another perspective. I won’t say more yet, because the Neighborly Affection universe is vast and there are so many stories to tell. We have Henry, Alice, and Jay’s main story to wrap up first, in Season of Gifts: Neighborly Affection Book 8, and then their friends Will and Emma have been very patiently waiting for their turn in the spotlight. (And by patiently, I mean they’ve filled stacks of notepaper with Things that Must Be Told.)
But have I considered it? And more to the point, has Henry considered it? Oh yes. Very much yes.
Henry, Jay and Alice love each other well without jealousy. Ethical non-monogamy seems like it’s still a pop culture taboo, or at the very least has few prominent examples. Do you have any recommendations for polyamory in media that show case it? (I see it often in places where it is not explicit: The Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb, the Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare. Curious if you have any inspo or faves).
In fiction, what most resonates for me (it gives me alllll the feels!) is the graphic novel series Sunstone. I feel a kinship with that series, because the things that I love to write about (poly and queer and kinky identities, and self-discovery, and how to treat each other with fairness and kindness) show up there, too.
On the nonfictional side, for anyone struggling with their poly/ethical non-monogamy identity or who feels like they’re the only one, I recommend Poly.Land, which I have found to offer wonderfully affirming and accepting messages alongside real practical advice in a friendly community.
I’ve been heartened recently by the real-life progress in Somerville, Massachusetts, which in the Neighborly Affection series is where the trio’s friends Stephen, Claudia, and Charlie live and where Jay has his regular basketball games. The city council there has enacted protections for polyamorous/ENM families that put them on equal footing with other kinds of families. It gives me hope.
I’ve heard talk that you will be writing in the expanded Neighborly Affection universe, so to speak. Any hints as to which characters might get their own treatments?
Oh my goodness, so many things spring to mind! I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, because the Neighborly Affection universe in my head (and in my acres of notes) is already dozens of books in at least six series. It’ll take a while for me to get to properly writing every story I want to tell. And I’m certainly open to showing more of existing characters that readers want to see, so if there’s someone who speaks to you, send me an email and tell me why.
But first up will be Will and Emma, because we know them best. They have so much richness and depth to add to the Neighborly Affection universe in the present and in the past. I can’t wait to share it!
When I’m trying to get friends and followers to read these books, I usually tell them about one of two crucial moments in this way: the most gut-wrenching safe-wording scene ever, and/or a villain so terrifying you’re truly not sure the hero will escape (I’m talking about Peggy, not Cal. Peggy : Cal :: mosquito : rattlesnake). If you had to sell the series on one moment, what would it be?
For me the lure isn’t a plot moment but a feeling: intimacy at its most honest and unflinching. There’s something compelling about people who are willing to be so vulnerable. The world can be a cruel and unforgiving place; it’s easy to become bitter or armor ourselves up with protective shells to keep out the hurt. Neighborly Affection’s heart is in the small moments, the tenderness, the way they look out for each other in all of the emotional dimensions where I think we all want to feel seen.
I can’t say for certain, but I think that’s why many readers return to the series again and again. It’s a place to rest and recharge. Henry, Alice, and Jay will always be there to welcome you home.
I’ve been very open that the Neighborly Affection series is my ultimate comfort read. And it makes me wonder, what is yours?
They say we feel most intensely in those crucial brain-forming years between about 12 and 25, right? Those years give us the songs we sing along to and the movies we quote for the rest of our lives. Not that we can’t have new favorites after that, but things hit different then.
(One of my “new” favorites in the last decade is singer-songwriter Carsie Blanton, who has talked about being ethically non-monogamous and writes stunningly beautiful sometimes-sweet, sometimes-spicy, sometimes-both love songs.)
So my comfort reads are the fantasy novels I read growing up. I read them so many times that now I just reach into my memory to draw out the feelings. The strongest ones are about love and loss and finding connection. For fantasy with a romance bent, it was Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody. The opening breaks my heart.
But my romance comfort read, if you will, is actually a movie: The Abyss. It grabbed hold of me as a kid and never let go. To this day, if I’m feeling down and need to ugly cry, I will put that on. It’s not billed as a romance, but that’s the heart of the story. It’s a story about the stories we tell ourselves — about who we are and what we need — and about how we bond and fight for each other and find a family and make sacrifices for each other. It’s about two people in a stranded submersible who just need a G-D crescent wrench because they can’t face the truth in front of them.
So I watch that, and I sob, and I ask myself or my characters what we’re really struggling with when we’re narrowly focused on that crescent wrench we imagine will make things right. And then I can move forward. It brings me comfort to experience these heartbreaking moments with characters I love and watch them discover something about themselves in the process.
I infamously named my new dog after your smoldering art guy. It took less than a week to realize a more accurate sobriquet would have been JAY (he’s a Plotthound who needs LOTS of exercise and affection, and even my daughters consider him a total himbo). So, if Henry, Alice and Jay were dog breeds, what would they be?
I LOVE this question! I’m laughing so hard imagining the trio as dogs.
Jay is very golden retriever to me. He’s affectionate, he always wants to be around his people, he’s empathetic and pays attention to their moods, and he’s anxious when he’s left alone. But he’s also strong and adventurous and always up for fun.
Alice is much more driven; she’s the border collie on the job. She’s planning five steps ahead before that sheep breaks out of her herd. She’s smart and hardworking, but she’s always on the edges. She starts off feeling like an outsider. Not a sheep, not a wolf, but something in between. It takes Henry and Jay to coax her into the house.
Henry is more like a Great Pyrenees. He’s a guardian dog. He cultivates a calm, noble temperament and devotion to family. Everything about him is understated; he has that unassuming exterior, but it conceals power and ferocity you wouldn’t imagine.
Beth is the proud sponsor of two little women and a huge fan of fandom. She took 3 years of Latin in high school and now speaks fluent pretension, which fully explains her current preference for gay wizard regency novels. She will roll over for a giant book with a map in the front. She takes comic book recommendations every day but Wednesday and TV recommendations never (she knows what's good).