The Professor Next Door is the third book in Jackie Lau’s Cider Bar Sisters series, and it stands alone, though it’s a bit more fun if you have already met Nicole’s friends. Like all the other stories in this series, it will make you want to go to Toronto and eat your entire body weight in desserts. Seriously, the food porn in these books is next level. Jackie Lau appears to subscribe to the idea that if food is love, then bringing people desserts is true love, an idea to which I not only subscribe but probably publish the magazine for. It is also sweet, funny, and extremely hot – David and Nicole are both very sexual people, and there are toys, dirty talk, and a lot of explicit fantasising in this story.
Our protagonists are Nicole Louie-Edwards, who is extroverted, aggressively single, and unashamedly sexual, and David Cho, the sweet, nerdy, geology professor who lives next door. It’s a classic opposites-attract romance. The two meet and become friends after they get stuck in the elevator together on Nicole’s birthday, after which David brings her cake from her favourite bakery. This quickly progresses into a friendship based around Friday night dinners together. While they alternate at providing a main meal, David always brings the most spectacular desserts, all described in mouth-watering detail, and honestly I don’t understand how anyone could not fall for him on the spot.
But David has a secret. You see, Nicole has a loud and adventurous sex life and the apartment walls are thin, and their bedrooms are basically right next to each other, all of which is to say… David can hear her. And this is a problem for two reasons:
His imagination, however, was adept at filling in all the gaps. For some reason, his imagination was extra active where she was involved, no matter how guilty he felt about letting it run wild.
He looked toward their shared wall and thought he detected the tiniest movements in the rock collection on his dresser. Most things would be just fine, but the ammonite in its display stand… well, he’d have to find another spot for that.
He couldn’t believe it. The sex life of his next-door neighbor was threatening the safety of his rock and fossil collection.
That just made me laugh with delight. It’s so very David. On the one hand, he is seriously turned on by the sounds Nicole is making on the other side of the wall, and by his fantasies about her, and also rather embarrassed about this, since it feels impolite and intrusive. And on the other hand, oh no, not the ammonite, anything but the ammonite! He is just so geekily adorable.
This is a very sex-positive story. Nicole starts the book single and intending to remain so, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to have plenty of excellent sex. She picks up attractive men in bars and has no-strings-attached affairs with them; when no men are on offer, she has an extensive collection of toys at home. Readers uncomfortable with books where the heroine has sex with people who are not the hero may want to give this story a miss. Not only does Nicole have (loud, happy, clearly very enjoyable) sex with people who aren’t David, but once he confesses that he can hear her (and that he likes what he hears), she makes it into a sexy game for both of them. She makes a point of being louder, and making absolutely sure David knows that she knows he is listening, and this is clearly a major turn on for them both. (She does not have other lovers after she starts having sex with David, however.)
Also, I do love how David is all quiet and shy and polite on the surface, but bossy and adventurous in bed. Yum.
Both David and Nicole have pasts that don’t predispose them to a relationship, though David is more open to the idea than Nicole is. David was previously married, but divorced his wife when it became clear that she would never take his side against her racist relatives. Nicole had one relationship, when she was at college ten years earlier, with a much older man who treated her poorly. She is convinced that she is not capable of having a relationship without losing her identity.
(To which I say, OK, point taken, but conversely, HE BRINGS YOU CAKE. And multiple orgasms. I am finding it hard to understand the problem here.)
One thing that is delightful about this story is the way Nicole’s family, particularly her Po Po, involves themselves in this relationship. Nicole’s Po Po is her mother’s mother, and she lives with Nicole’s cousin Kelsey. Kelsey has recently introduced Po Po to the internet, and Po Po has taken to Tik Tok like a duck to water. As she proudly informs Nicole when she turns up unexpectedly on her doorstep on Nicole’s birthday
“Guess what? I got virus on the internet.”
In addition to being a viral Tik Tok sensation, Po Po is very invested in getting Nicole married off. When she finds David at Nicole’s apartment, she instantly concludes that he must be Nicole’s new boyfriend, and interrogates him accordingly, and without mercy.
“If you don’t admit your feelings,” Po Po said, “maybe I will have medical emergency. Will it be fake? You don’t know. Then you will feel bad. Come on, tell me!”
She also has advice for Nicole.
“I will give you advice,” Po Po said. “It will cost you one dollar.” She held out her hand.
Nicole laughed. “Why don’t you put the advice in a video instead?”
“Why won’t you pay a dollar for good advice? Fine, I will give it for free. He is a nice man and he brought you birthday cake. You should date him!”
I mean, her advice is sound.
For me, the only weakness of this story was just how long it took Nicole to reach a point where she could accept that David might love her. Their relationship moves pretty smoothly from friends with cake to friends with benefits (and also cake, which is unquestionably a benefit), a situation which Nicole considers ideal. Or at least, she keeps telling herself it’s ideal, but she’s also feeling a bit lonely, and sadly anticipating the day that he falls in love with someone else, just like all her other flings have done. She realises that she is catching feelings for him, but to her that’s a cue to withdraw, even when it is increasingly obvious that he is in love with her.
I may have been biased by the fact that they keep on feeding each other, a clear sign of true love, but I did find this frustrating. It felt almost like a pacing issue: the conflict between them came very late in the book, when things had been going really very consistently well up until that point. And while Nicole’s insecurities were clearly very real, I felt as though she was on the road to moving past them just by virtue of the fact that David was consistently being there and being himself. To me, the last couple of emotional twists in the book seemed unnecessary and even detracted from the story. Fortunately, this phase did not last long – but I could have done without it regardless.
But this is really a minor flaw in a book that is otherwise a sheer delight. I loved the friends to lovers storyline, and the ways in which David and Nicole showed care for each other throughout the narrative. For all Nicole’s insecurities, there was no doubt in my mind that they would be happy together. I loved the way the story absolutely revelled in sensuality, both in the bedroom and in the dining room. And I loved the sense of family. True, Po Po’s behaviour falls into the category of things that would drive me absolutely bananas in real life, but at the safe remove of fiction, it is hilarious and adorable. And Po Po’s love for Nicole was palpable, which makes her interference more palatable.
And perhaps that’s the key to why this story worked so well for me. This book celebrates so many kinds of love – not just romantic, but familial and platonic. David and Nicole may have both been unfortunate in romance, but they each have friends and family and colleagues who love them in very tangible ways. It’s the kind of love that expresses itself in looking after the people you care about, emotionally and practically. It’s a very solid base, and it makes this book a very comforting one to read even before David and Nicole begin to fall in love. And when they do, well, that’s even better.
And did I mention there is cake?