Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

March 17, 2014

Title: Side Effects May Vary
Author: Julie Murphy
Publication date: March 18, 2014
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Genre: YA, Contemporary
Source: Publisher (Edelweiss)
Amazon Goodreads | TBD
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?

Julie Murphy’s SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY is a fearless and moving tour de force about love, life, and facing your own mortality.>
Maybe if I hadn't started Side Effects May Vary with such high hopes, it wouldn't have been such a disappointment, but, I did, and it was. So that's that. I shall, however, validate my stance, and you can go forth and make a decision to whether or not to read it.

Side Effects May Vary started off very promisingly. We first meet Alice at the most disillusioning moment of her life, and it also the moment when the downhill tumble begins, so it's a double whammy, and when the next chapter shifts to when she's in the advanced stage of cancer, with Harvey professing his love for her while trying to keep it together, it had me half way to tears. And then she get's well. And then we see the 'before' Alice - when she went through her bucket list, split almost evenly between things for 'revenge' and 'just because'. And the disillusionment begins.

Side Effects May Vary has got a great story line. It's a very different way to explore the issue of cancer and death, and more importantly, life. The will to live. Because the prospect of being completely cured of cancer is still a toss up - being in remission doesn't mean it's gone forever; it could always return. So do you go ahead and live your life, or is there no point to it at all because there's a very real possibility that you'll end up dying anyway?
I knew how to die. It was the living that scared me.
I loved how the book showed Alice struggling with these issues, which play a large part in her behaviour towards Harvey.

Which brings me to the screwed up romance in this book. When she was sick, Alice led Harry on time and time again, and as soon as she gets well, she literally throws him aside, without giving him a second look. Frankly speaking, I don't see what Harvey saw in her, because even when she was playing him, she was very open about the fact that she was, and given their history of how she started ignoring him with no explanation right up till she got sick, I don't get how he could still love her as much as he did. It's not that he doesn't see through her. He does. But he loves her in spite of it, and that just baffles me. But maybe it's a good thing? That he loves her inspite of who she is? Huh. Never thought of that. Okay, even if that's all noble of him, it's still a very unhealthy kind of love. When he finally grew a backbone and told her to figure out whether or not she wanted him in her life, I whooped! (in my head, of course. Because I dont whoop where people can hear me. It's not pleasant.) And what about her? How can you be so cruel to someone who adores you so much? While I get that she's struggling with the decision to whether or not set her life back on track, there's still no excuse for such behaviour. It's just plain mean.

Also, soon after the first chapter, when the cancer symptoms first appear, we jump to the last stages, with no information on what happened in between. We learn only little of what transpires in that time, later on in the book, but only with context to her bucket list. I ended up feeling like there was no basis for Alice and Harvey's relationship. While it is alluded to a number of times, I felt like there wasn't any solid timeline to their relationship, in which I could trace it's blossoming.

But while all that about Alice irked me to no end, her character is nevertheless one that I couldn't help but sympathise with. Whichever way you look at it, she's not exactly got it easy, you know. While her relationship with her Mum was always troubled, she never expected her to have such a flawed character, a revelation which shatters the foundation of her life. And now that she has to live with that secret, it just festers in her heart, eating away at the goodness. And then there's the fact that she's made enemies on her quest to complete her bucket list, and now that he's no longer on her death bed, they're lining up to take revenge. Add to this the elemental fear that anyone who's been so close to death would have of the prospect of living, of hoping for another lease at life. My time reading was spent alternately between wanting to strangle her and just give her a hug.

The book is written in a non-linear narrative, in terms of 'Now' and 'Then', which, in my opinion, was not to good effect, because not only was it confusing, for obvious reasons, but the 'before' part was not really chronological, making it more mind boggling that normal. I had to keep flipping to the beginning of the chapter to see where I was.

A word on the author's writing: it's not very often that I come across a well written book. And by 'well-written', I dont mean the story per se. I mean the way the author strings together words so the story reaches us. The language, the prose, the emotions. All of them, I have to say, were pretty spot on in Side Effects May Vary, and did make up considerably for the parts that were lacking in other areas.

Bottomline: Go in with no expectations, and you just might love it. The interesting story with a hit or miss protagonist, and the author's writing make for some boredom-free, interesting reading.

The Midnight Garden: I am honestly disturbed that this character is presented as someone with whom I am supposed to sympathize. Alice’s manipulations stirred up dark and painful memories for me, as I imagine they would for anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of such.

Turning Pages: My view on Alice did change as the story went on, just like her view on life changed as the story progressed.

Paper Riot: This is unlike the contemps that I typically love—books with sweet romances or great friendships... In my opinion, the most important thing about Side Effects May Vary is that we readers are introduced to Julie Murphy’s brilliant writing.

Holding Quote:
High school did that to you, turned you into pieces of driftwood. And the parts of you that you'd tried to keep in one piece became the property of the wind and the water, sending those dear parts everywhere you were not.

I’d always heard that when you truly love someone, you’re happy for them as long as they’re happy. But that’s a lie. That’s higher-road bullshit. If you love someone so much, why the hell would you be happy to see them with anyone else? I didn’t want the easy kind of love. I wanted crazy love, the kind of love that created and destroyed all at the same time.

In a hundred years, no one would know us, but this moment for us would last as long as we did.

There was one privilege to dying: the right to live without consequence. 

Does love still exist if you cant say it?