Side Effects May Vary
by Julie Murphy
Expected Publication Date: March 18, 2014
Length: 336 pages
Obtained Via: I received an electronic advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This influenced my final opinion of the book in no way.
Format Read In: E-ARC
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What if you’d been living your life as if you were dying—only to find out that you had your whole future ahead of you?
When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, her prognosis is grim. To maximize the time she does have, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs—however she sees fit. She convinces her friend Harvey, whom she knows has always had feelings for her, to help her with a crazy bucket list that’s as much about revenge (humiliating her ex-boyfriend and getting back at her arch nemesis) as it is about hope (doing something unexpectedly kind for a stranger and reliving some childhood memories). But just when Alice’s scores are settled, she goes into remission.
Now Alice is forced to face the consequences of all that she’s said and done, as well as her true feelings for Harvey. But has she done irreparable damage to the people around her, and to the one person who matters most?
Side Effects May Vary was my most anticipated 2014 debut, so to say I am saddened by how disappointed I was was an understatement. While I think aspects of Side Effects May Vary were done well and exerted a small tug on my emotions, I have to confess there were several parts of Side Effects May Vary that left me feeling rather blah. Despite these strong statements, I did enjoy Side Effects May Vary while reading it, enough to rate it 3 stars on Goodreads, but there were things I had issues with and on the whole, I just expected more from this book.
The premise of Side Effects May Vary still fascinates me. Alice is a teenager who seems to have an infinite number of tomorrows until she’s diagnosed with leukemia. She’s hurt, angry with the world, and left wanting more, so she lashes out. With her friend’s Harvey help, she begins to exact revenge on those she believes have wronged her.
My feelings on Alice and Harvey, the two central characters of Side Effects May Vary, are decidedly mixed. I like that Murphy took a risk and made the main character of a cancer story so unlikable and catty. So often in books the people who may become sick are the ones we would want around us in our own life–kind, giving, selfless. Alice is not like that at all, and I really love this in an objective way. Alice isn’t by any means a terrible person, but she does some pretty unkind and mean-spirited things–the type of things most sixteen-year-olds would only dream of.
However, while I liked the take on Alice’s character in an objective way, I didn’t like it much as a reader, because after finishing Side Effects May Vary, I still don’t understand her. And not in a “I wouldn’t do that way,” but in a “I needed more insight into Alice’s head” way, despite the fact half of book is told from her point of view. I think in the case of Side Effects May Vary, the split point-of-view and also the split timeline hurt the book more than anything else. The characterization became muddled when I didn’t get enough time inside either character’s head, and the jumping back and forth between right after diagnosis and right after remission, which sounded so good on paper, didn’t work for me.
Much with Alice, I had a difficult time really understanding Harvey’s character. He’s in love with Alice, and I understand that, but I never understood why, except that they grew up together. That could have been a great foundation, but it was never explored enough in Side Effects May Vary for me to believe it. Harvey is a good character with the potential to be a great one, but I really just needed more for me to say that with confidence. I did like how Harvey, the male lead, was the more sensitive and quiet one, and how Alice was the more assertive one, so I do give Murphy props for mixing up gender roles. In the end, though, I felt too often I was being told what the characters were feeling or thinking instead of it flowing organically.
Despite some of my frustrations with Side Effects May Vary, I do think there were a string of brilliant glimpses in this novel. There were some incredibly moving scenes that affected me, though I think it’s important to address that Side Effects May Vary never felt emotionally manipulative, which is one of my pet peeves when it comes to books about sickness, so I’m quite grateful for that. I also thought that Murphy’s writing was wonderful and it sucked me in right away. I definitely breezed through this novel and in the end, enjoyed it, but it was more forgettable than I was expecting. Side Effects May Vary was a decent debut, but didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
I have to admit to initially feeling disappointed in Side Effects May Vary. The premise and story were promising, and the writing certainly delivered, but the way the story was structured really made me feel incredibly distant from the characters, the most important part. I know so little about Harvey and Alice despite spending half of the novel in each of their’s head, and I felt the character motivation lacking. That being said, I still found this mostly enjoyable and a nice take on the “typical” cancer books. 3/5 cupcakes.