Publisher: Balzer + Bray.
Hardcover, 336 pages.
Release date: March 18th 2014.
Rating: 3½ out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.
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.
Dying is easy. For Alice, it’s living that’s the problem…
Sixteen year old Alice knows her life is ending. She’s in the final stages of leukemia, and Alice, never one to mince her words, knows it’s only a matter of time before she expires.
Alice is OK with that. She’s OK with death. She may be young, but Alice has come to terms with the fact that she’s not going to be around for much longer. In many ways, Alice thinks the sooner she shuffles off this mortal coil, the better, because lets just say that Alice hasn’t been the model patient. Or the model daughter. Or the model kind-of-but-not-really girlfriend to her childhood best friend, Harvey, a sweet, sweet boy who is madly in love with her. Alice demands a lot, she’s held accountable for very little, and don’t ask her any questions because you might not like her answers. Alice is ready to go.
And go she does. Into remission.
A miracle cure is the one thing Alice didn’t count on. I mean, things were looking pretty bleak for Alice, and the truth is she’s not quite ready to keep on living. She’s not ready to face up to the consequences of her actions – Alice has a Bucket List of sorts you see. I prefer to call it (in the words of L7) a shitlist – and during her illness she’s upset a whole lot of people. Now she has to face up to those people. Oh, and now that she’s living, she also has to face up to Harvey who she’s pretty much played for a fool.
So, what does Alice do about all of this? Well, first of all, you should know that I had a really hard time liking Alice. By which I mean I really, really, didn’t like Alice. And I really didn’t get why Harvey liked Alice so much. Alice is selfish, she’s bitter, she’s mean-spirited (apart from a certain puppy episode which showed that underneath it all she has a heart), she treats Harvey downright terribly. And Harvey just takes it. We know why Harvey puts up with so much from Alice because Side Effects May Vary is dually narrated between the two; Alice (sour) and Harvey (sweeter than sweet). Its timeline is also split in two between Then (when Alice has cancer) and Now (when she’s in remission). This might all sound a little confusing, but it works for the most part, even though, okay, it does slow down the story just a little. Still, Murphy’s writing is stellar, so no complaints on that count.
My major complaint is Alice and how she treats the people around her. So Alice’s main targets are Luke (ex-boyfriend), Celeste (arch-nemesis; also hooked up with Luke), her mom (they don’t see eye to eye for many reasons) and Harvey – most of all Harvey – because Alice uses Harvey and then she chucks him away like trash. Ugh! And Harvey is a lovely guy, but boy does Alice walk all over him; and he lets her. Harvey is in love with Alice. Alice, who never gave Harvey the time of day when she was dating Luke suddenly reconnects with Harvey when she falls ill and wants someone to help her carry out her revengenda. Harvey is it. He knows he’s being used. And he’s OK with that.
Thankfully Luke and Celeste don’t take Alice’s behavior lying down. I mean, their payback was pretty harsh on Alice, and yes, they went too far: but Alice deserved some kind of comeuppance.
I know I have harped on an on about Alice in this review – she really annoyed me in case you didn’t get that already! – But there is a lot more to this book than just its bitchy protagonist. Side Effects May Vary is a strong debut and it is insightful in that it deals with the complexities and ramifications of Alice’s recovery. It seems to be a no-brainer that Alice would be overjoyed at going into remission, but the threat of a cancer comeback always looms large; and in a way, even though Alice’s behavior is deplorable at times, it’s understandable too. Alice is frightened; she’s frightened of living, she’s frightened of loving, because even in recovery, Alice knows that her second chance may not be a forever chance.
If you like issue driven contemps, with, shall we say, protagonists with strong personalities (I’m being kind on Alice here), then check this one out. I was impressed with Murphy’s writing skills and will certainly check out her future offerings.
But do I think that Harvey should stay far, far away from Alice and avoid a potentially miserable existence? Oh, hell yes I do!