Books, Reviews, YA Fiction

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy | a unique take on the cancer concept in YA


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, who 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 archnemesis) as it is about hope (doing something unexpectedly kind for a stranger). 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 caused 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.

Side Effects May Vary hops on the cancer/tragedy/tearjerker train and decides to formulate a story around it, except it doesn’t. In fact, it’s not a tearjerker or tragic story, there aren’t so many blunt, ‘sad’ moments at all. It’s one of the most unique takes on this concept, and while I’ve got my problems with it, I have to commend it for that aspect.

Side Effects May Vary takes place in two ‘time periods’, ‘then’ and ‘now’. ‘Then’ refers to the news of Alice’s diagnosis, her chemo sessions, and her master plan for revenge with Harvey. ‘Now’ is representative of Alice’s life after being in remission and how she copes with Harvey, her family, and all the relationships she has drastically changed. It’s not so much of a tragedy, but rather facing all the shit you’ve caused, who you truly are, and who you want to be around you. It’s a difficult story, and it’s difficult to read it as well.

The emotion and uniqueness behind the concept: Obviously after finding out about her remission, Alice is broken emotionally because, for the past year, she’s lived her life with absolutely no consequences. Her diagnosis was seen as terrible but also as an opportunity for her to live freely and love freely. Well, she actually has trouble with the latter for majority of the book, but we’ll discuss that later. Most of the book is actually psychological, as Alice struggles to live by the rules and begin her life all over again, after being so ready to just … die. The sadness of it surrounds learning to live again after being told you are going to die, instead of the dying itself. It’s different and conveyed so subtly.

The characters that I (unsurprisingly) had issues with: I don’t hate Alice and Harvey, and I can acknowledge the fact that they are realistic and raw to an extent, but they are the prime reason I couldn’t enjoy this book fully. I actually liked Alice more than I thought I would, many readers stated that they thought she was a bitch. Which she is, obviously. Everything about her is so unfiltered, and she is truly angry, saddened, and frustrated with her life after discovering she is in remission. She never takes into account the feelings of others and treats people however she wants. However, I felt for her because the thoughts she had in the past were so understandable, and her psyche must be deeply affected by the events coming afterward. Her vulnerability and frustration caused her to behave in outlandish yet Alice-esque ways, in which there were no rules and nobody to please or change herself for. I totally understood this, but my liking for her fluctuated so many times throughout the novel. It was easy to accept she was a realistic and unfiltered character, but it was extremely difficult to actually like her, and I felt as though her feelings toward Harvey and herself were just not told in a poignant enough way. She always had me very unsettled and uncomfortable in her actions and thoughts, and it was hard to recover from that due to the writing. That’s a personal thing, though. Disliking Harvey was a personal thing too. He’s constantly used and treated as lapdog by Alice, and can never get over his male hormones and come to his senses about her. There are moments, but he always subjects himself to the same terrible treatment by Alice and I can’t pity him or feel sad for him. He leaves me with a similar unsettling feeling.

The very complicated relationship between Alice and Harvey: Alice and Harvey’s relationship is the most angsty, complex, and irritating relationship you can imagine. Alice is clearly not nice to Harvey, she treats him like a servant, never considers his feelings, and expects his utmost loyalty to her when she treats him like shit. The funny thing is, Harvey falls for it every time and never really realizes that he doesn’t deserve her nasty treatment when he has been so devoted and respectful. There are times when they both snap, but they always go back to their half-friend half-romantic relationship. Alice claims she doesn’t see Harvey in that way, but she won’t let him move on. Harvey tries to move on, but is hooked on Alice and truly believes in her ‘good’. It’s inconsistent and messy but I liked it. The writing complimented their feelings well, and while Harvey is still bothersome, I could understand Alice’s fear of commitment and accepting how she feels on Harvey. I just wish it wasn’t so back-and-forth, and I can’t spoil things for y’all, but their inconsistency is one of the reasons I disliked the lack of resolve in the ending.

I would recommend this to anyone looking for a frustrating yet real viewpoint at a complex relationship, and those who are unafraid of hard to handle/love characters. Most of all, I would suggest it to anyone in search of a unique take on surviving with cancer and learning to live your life, because that is what this book does best.