Published by Balzer & Bray on March 18, 2014
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
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.
I’ll be straight with you. Contemporary is not my favorite genre. With that said, if I am going to read a contemporary novel it means I think there is a strong chance that I will really like it. Side Effects May Vary left me confused, disturbed, irritated, depressed, and angry in turns. I was so bewildered by this story that I am convinced that I simply must have missed the entire point of it. There just has to be something I’m not understanding here. Why would I want to read a book about terrible people, who are terrible to each other, and who exhibit extremely minimal amounts of personal growth throughout? Truly, I do not understand.
Perhaps this is my fault. I thought the sort of repercussions Alice would be dealing with would be things like telling someone you love them because time has run out only to discover that it hasn’t. Now the consequences of those words must be faced. What do you do when you could love someone while dying but are completely unsure of how to live with it? That would be an interesting story. And it is addressed here, a little. Unfortunately, it is far overshadowed by the maliciousness of Alice’s other deeds. I was chilled by how unexpectedly grim this story is. I was chilled by how unexpectedly grim this story is.
Upon reflection, though, I might be off the hook. That synopsis is not being entirely truthful. I have fixed it below to more accurately reflect the reality of the book:
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 (by plotting ludicrous and petty revenge schemes). She convinces (purposely and decisively manipulates) her friend Harvey, whom she knows has always had feelings for her (she sure does know. she manipulates him sexually as well), 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) (nope it’s entirely about revenge) as it is about hope (doing something unexpectedly kind for a stranger and reliving some childhood memories) (she haltingly does something nice once).
That’s more like it.
The story is told in both Alice’s and Harvey’s POV while switching back and forth between “Now” (the remission period) and “Then” (the cancer period). Non-linear narratives don’t necessarily bother me but this one did. If you are not a fan of non-linear novels I would advise you to be wary of this one. I couldn’t understand what the point of making this non-linear was. There is no difference between Alice’s behavior “now” and her behavior “then.” It is not as if we see anything in the Then to explain Alice’s behavior either Then or Now. It’s just all around loathsome. There’s no differentiating between the Alices which only adds to the narrative confusion.
Let’s get to Alice. Alice is a real piece of work. Now, I love complex, unlikeable characters; especially when they’re female. Girls face overwhelming societal expectations to be nice, sweet, and smiling at all times. I really love it when characters are unashamedly flawed and human. Alice is on a whole other level. Petty, mean, and spiteful just for the sake of it. She vows to spend the remaining months of her life taking revenge on others while sexually manipulating the one boy who loves her despite her many misgivings. Certainly, she is under no obligation to love him back just because he loves her. But, all humans have a basic responsibility to be decent. Alice fails. I have never come across a protagonist as selfish, cold hearted, and unrepentant as Alice. She exploits Harvey and enjoys the way it makes her feel. If she makes him, or anyone else, upset she does not care. I don’t prefer to rely on quotes to illustrate my points, but I feel that it is necessary here to see how nasty she really is.
Here she is manipulating Harvey into helping her with her bucket list. He, understandably, has reservations because her plans are so awful. I especially hate how she alludes to something physical happening between them that she has absolutely no intention of pursuing.
“Harvey, if I…if I die and you don’t help me with this, you will always regret it. Doing these things with you, that’s part of my list in a way.” “Maybe there are some things that you want to do with me that are on your list, ya know?”
When Alice senses Harvey might be starting to break free of her hold she knows exactly what to do to reel him right back in:
“I leaned across the center console and gave him a kiss on the cheek. That was exactly what I needed to keep Harvey in reach.”
That is classic emotionally abusive behavior. 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. I can’t fathom why readers would be asked to grant Alice even some understanding. Okay, she has cancer but, as I said above, there is no difference between pre-, during, and post-cancer Alice’s behavior and machinations. There have been no lessons learned from experience. There is no growth to her character. Why am I supposed to forgive such despicable behavior?
Alice’s bucket list consists of carrying out a series of ridiculous revenge plots against her Dumb Jock ex-boyfriend and the Mean Girl stereotype with whom he was cheating on Alice. I won’t spoil anything but I will tell you that the punishments do not fit the crimes. The acid glee with which Alice engages in her seriously harmful plans is unnerving. Most of all, the revenge plot doesn’t work because both the Dumb Jock and the Mean Girl are on equal footings of awful with Alice. They’re all just contemptible people being contemptible to each other. How can there be a “winner” there?
Now, it may be true that Harvey is steadfast, loyal, and dedicated to Alice, but I couldn’t garner too much sympathy for him. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Harvey loved Alice. Yes, they were childhood friends and he knew her when she was somewhat less awful. He gives us a flashback scene where he falls in love with her, at 13, watching her in ballet class. He tells us that he thinks she’s perfect but he doesn’t tell us why. Instead he says things like this:
“On that cold night in January it all slipped into place for me and she became my everything and my everyone. My music, my sun, my words, my hope, my logic, my confusion, my flaw.”
Nevermind how cliche I find that passage, why is she all of those things to Harvey? We’re never given an answer.
I do feel bad for Harvey that he’s been so manipulated by this girl. Yet I couldn’t stop being frustrated with him. He knows and admits that she is selfish and manipulative but then still goes along with it anyway. He knows very well how poorly she treats others too. Is it supposed to be a mark of his love for her that he puts up with it all? No, no, no. Love yourself more. You cannot love an abusive person into not being abusive. I am happy to say that the book does eventually steer away from that messaging and Harvey, at least, does show some growth.
But then there are interactions like this one (and keep in mind this is very close to the end of the book). After Alice has brought a boy back to her room and Harvey witnesses the guy leave:
“He didn’t know how much to leave for you. I told him first one’s on the house. Isn’t that right, Al?”
Well, that’s just charming. They are not in a relationship at the time. The only person who should get to have a say in Alice’s sexual life is Alice. Do you see what I mean about how this book is about terrible people being terrible to each other? I am just flummoxed. What is the point?
I won’t tell you that there is absolutely no growth of character in the end for the both of them. But it comes way late and way suddenly. The forward momentum of the plot is spent building up this dysfunctional dynamic only to pull the brakes at the very, very end. It felt untrue to the story. It was unsatisfying.
For the most part the writing is fine apart from a few cliched passages like Harvey’s above. My biggest complaint is the lack of depth. Again, Harvey’s quoted passage is a great example. We’re told that Harvey loves Alice but not shown any reason. Alices tells us, “I knew how to die. It was living that scared me.” Again, aside from that being one of the most cliched lines you can find in this type of story, why? Way too much time is put into Alice’s various revenge schemes, and her bitter joy in them, than is put into any understanding of her character. And that’s just a shame.
I will give the author one huge prop for being a master of mood. I came across this interview with her after I finished the book and it definitely clicked some things into place in mind. Specifically, where she stated that she wrote the book to “the soundtrack” of Blue Valentine. Ah, now I get it. The tone and mood are very similar. This is a grim portrayal of a dysfunctional relationship that was not particularly enjoyable to experience. She pulled me into a dark, dark headspace and, since that was the goal, I applaud her for it.
What am I looking for in a reading experience? Why did I dislike this so much? I want my heart to be tugged and pulled. I want to be left moved. I want to be enriched. Whether my heart is broken or soaring, I want it to have meaning. What was the meaning of this? If the main character has no heart what is going to carry the book? I do not enjoy being drawn down into darkness. This story was so disturbing in its portrayal of dysfunction that I cannot wait to put it behind me.
I will say that my rating is very much an emotional reaction. I really didn’t enjoy the way this book made me feel. I think this is super personal and that mileage will very much depend upon the reader. I certainly am not automatically discounting any future works by the author. I might even be keen to see what she comes up with next. There is a lot of promise here with the right kind of story. I’ll leave you with some other opinions that might better help you decide whether or not this is for you. Giselle at Xpresso Reads has a more balanced review than mine and Jen at The Starry-Eyed Revue has a glowing one.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review. All quotes from an uncorrected proof and may be subject to change in the final copy.