Review: Side Effects May Vary - Julie Murphy

Release Date: March 26th 2014 (Aus) / March 18th 2014 (US)
Published By: Penguin Australia / Balzer + Bray
Pages: 336
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Purchase: Click here to purchase

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Synopsis: 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.

Review: Side Effects May Vary may not be for everyone, but I loved it! The fact that this is a story about a young girl who goes in to remission after she has surrendered to the fact that she will not beat leukemia. It isn’t the fact that this girl went into remission that I liked about this storyline, it is the fact that many illness related stories focus on the struggles of the person who has been diagnosed with an illness - but this book is exactly the opposite; it focuses on the struggles of suddenly finding out that you don’t have to live a life of dying anymore, and the terrifying prospect of suddenly having a life to live.

I think as a society we are empathetic about the emotional turmoil to those who are in the prime of their life and are suddenly told they have an illness such as this. I think we are also sympathetic to the struggles faced by those with such illnesses as they are fighting for their life. And that is why books that focus on these storylines are so touching. But to date, I have not read a book that exemplifies what a struggle it would be to completely surrender to the fact that you do not have a future to look forward to, and then suddenly, there is one. This is a young girl who completely believed she was going to die, she never made any future plans, nor did she dream of having a future at all. She accepted her illness was going to beat her and spent her time in the present, never dreaming of a future that will never come. Until one day… it arrives.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I liked a lot of what Alice did. Because basically, I didn’t. In all honesty, I she was not a very likeable character overall. But I feel this book showed the rare, and remarkable challenges faced by those who are fortunate enough to be the recipient of such a miracle. I felt for Alice: although she never expected a future, one is suddenly thrust upon her and everyone around her expected her to know how to deal with that, and assumed that she knew what to do with this future that she never thought possible. Her boyfriend is expecting a happily ever after, her parents are expecting her to pick up where she left off before she got sick and go back to school and have college plans in place… I honestly felt sorry for her. However, that isn’t saying that I liked her.

Even excluding the inner-turmoil she is going through, Alice is an extremely selfish person. And to be honest, if this book was solely from her point of view, I don’t think I could have tolerated listening to her. Harvey, Alice’s poor-desperately-devoted boyfriend is the saving grace of this dual-narrative. I thought that Harvey was lovely, sweet, kind and devoted - all of which made him a door-mat for Alice and her selfish and self-destructive behaviour. Harvey, whilst continuously being used by Alice, is aware (most of the time) that he is being used… but he was a somewhat love-sick puppy and could not help himself but keep on returning for more. I liked Harvey, even though he was completely blinded by his love for Alice, and I felt for him. He was so in love with Alice and so willing to be her everything that he gave up a lot of himself, and when the time came to it where he thought that everything has turned out okay, and everything he has done has been worth it, he learns he has the girlfriend from hell. And yes, I did feel sorry for him for what Alice done to him after her remission, but I also understood why he continued to stick around - this guy is not lacking in the hope and wish department - and he was hoping that at the end of the day the girl he loves will finally resurface.

Alice is just so messed up she didn’t know what, or who, she wanted - besides the fact that she wanted nothing and nobody, but everything and everybody at the same time. As well as than being a “I want my cake, and to eat it too” type person, she was also a “I don’t want it, but you can’t have it either” type person. All in all, she isn’t a likeable character after she goes into remission. In all honesty, she was a bitch. But this is her story, her fight, and she has to find a way to deal with her new life.

This story does switch narratives between Alice and Harvey, but it also switches between “now” and “then”. Sometimes jumping around like this can be very confusing, but in all honesty, I didn’t mind it at all. I felt that both characters had their own personality which was well reflected in their own distinct voice, which of course saved the confusion of jumping between characters.

Side Effects May Vary, to me, is a bit of a role reversal - both from the cancer and the relationship aspect. And I found this rather refreshing. We get to explore the emotional rollercoaster and aftermath of beating cancer, rather than the fighting it stage, and we also get to see the female character being the horrible person in a relationship.

I thought Side Effects May Vary may have a higher focus on Alice’s “bucket list” - but sadly it does not. Actually, I shouldn’t say sadly, this is possibly a good thing - as most of the things on her Alice’s list aren’t worthy of being called a “bucket list”, it was really more a vengeance list. But, I will give Alice credit for never making excuses for her desire to get revenge. The synopsis indicates that Alice must now deal with the consequences of her actions from when she thought she was dying - but to me, this was far more about her dealing the consequences of her actions after she found out she would live. And of course, her learning how to live.

Side Effects May Vary is a very unique book. You get to understand the desire, loss and helplessness of dealing with cancer, the peace and denial of accepting the inevitable, and the joy, confusion and heartache of being cured.



“Cancer would take away plenty. My hair, my body, my life. What I’d never realized, though, was that there was one privilege to dying: the right to live without consequence.”

“I thought that maybe if the cancer did come back it might not be so bad. I knew how to die. It was the living that scared me.”

“I hoped he’d never forget this year of his life. No, our life. Because, thanks to Harvey, the year I died had become the year I lived.”

“I wanted to be that person for all of them-the person they’d painted into their memory, the memorialized version of Alice-but that girl wasn’t me. And that scared me. As it turned out, my greatest fear in life had become expectations.”

“This feeling that the world was so pleased to call love destroyed people every day and it would do that to me too.”

“But now I felt trapped, like a homeless person who’d been given their dream home only to suffer from intense wanderlust because we always wanted something until we have it.”

“You can play the cancer card forever, Alice.”

What do you think?

  • I was really surprised there was so little “bucket list” in it! I mean, the blurb is really selling it as a bucket list book! I was definitely disappointed by that (who doesn’t like ticking off lists?!!) But yeah. I didn’t like this book at all. I couldn’t ship Harvey/Alice at all…*sigh* BUT I’m glad you liked it!! I think it was very unique in premise. :))

    • Kristy says:

      I think a lot of people were expecting a bucket list :( I can see why you wouldn’t have liked this one so much, it is one of those books that I think people either like or don’t (and since the main character isn’t that nice, it’s quite easy to see why people wouldn’t like it). But yes, I really enjoyed the premise of this one :)

  • I actually love the premise of this book, and so far I haven’t been deterred by all the negative reviews. Plus, I REALLY want to see what my own opinion will be!! Great review, love the different perspective :)

    • Kristy says:

      Like you, books with such varied reviews always interest me. I like to see why there are such conflicting feelings about it, and make up my own mind about it. I really hope you enjoy it when you get to read it Emily :)

  • I’ve heard so many criticisms on Alice’s selfish and awful behaviour that it’s totally put me off from reading the book. Her poor boyfriend only has himself to blame for putting up with it to. I’m glad you enjoyed it though, at least I’ll be prepared when I go into it.

    Jeann @ Happy Indulgence

    • Kristy says:

      As much as I enjoyed this book, I cannot lie and say I didn’t think that Alice was overly selfish - because she really was! But, in saying that, I still enjoyed the uniqueness of this book. I hope you enjoy it when you read it as well :)

  • Eugenia says:

    Fantastic review Kristy :) I loved the book too, but do agree with you that Alice’s character was a bit hard to deal with at times. Still, overall it was a great read!

    • Kristy says:

      Thank you Eugenia. I am glad that you enjoyed Side Effects May Vary. I liked the fact that Alice was hard to like… it brought an interesting element to the story.

  • I loved this book too - and for the reasons you enjoyed it. She’s not nice. In fact she’s a bit of a bitch. But I like how it dealt with everything else. The things that a lot of books with cancer people leave out because the romance is the focus rather than the other emotional turmoil they face.

    • Kristy says:

      Hi Kate. Yes, she is a bitch - and I really enjoyed that aspect of the book. And I loved the fact that this really dealt with the emotional turmoil side of it - very unique and refreshing!

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