Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy
Julie Murphy’s debut, Side Effects May Vary follows the story of a girl who was diagnosed with leukemia in her sophomore year of high school right after she saw her mother with another man. Alice has never been a particularly nice girl; she’s spirited, strong and – in her own words – a bitch. So when she realizes her prognosis is low and that she probably won’t be alive for much longer, she vows to live her life as she sees fit. She launches head-first into a relationship with her childhood best friend, Harvey- a guy she’s been in love with for as long as she can remember, but hadn’t made a move until now. At school, Alice is taking revenge against everyone who has wronged her. She’s a bitch, alright, and she’s making sure everyone knows it – especially since she’s not going to live very long.
But then Alice goes into remission- she knows she should be happy that she’s going to be living longer, but she can’t help but wonder what her life will be like after everything she’s done. She distances herself from Harvey, certain that he deserves someone better, that she cannot give him what he needs. And she’s just beginning to face the wrath of everyone she hurt when she was hiding behind the shell of her illness.
Side Effects May Vary is a bold debut in more ways than one. In a world where there exist a plethora of books revolving around cancer where our main characters are good, sweet, fragile people who did no harm yet were hurt by life comes a book where the main character is a bitch, full stop. She is not ‘good’ – she hurts people and shows little remorse for it. She is not sweet- she has a sharp-tongue, a mean streak that she’s not really apologetic about. And she is, by no means, fragile. We have become so accustomed to look at people with cancer as these ‘broken’ things that Murphy throws us a character who it’s difficult to feel sympathy for. Which is not to say that such people deserve cancer, God no. Just that it’s such a unique, bold move that evokes rather conflicting feelings in the reader. You feel bad for her because she’s a teenager with cancer, for fuck’s sake. But you also don’t like her at all.
Which is another thing that really struck me. Alice is obviously unlikable- it’s in-your-face obvious. She has very little redeeming qualities, and Murphy is very much aware of that. Alice is not meant to be a protagonist you root for- she is meant to represent the darkest parts of us, the part that is vengeful and jealous and mean, a part that is literally personified in this novel. But even Harvey is rather unlikable, in a more subtle way. He’s a push-over, but only when it comes to Alice. With other people, he uses them just as much as Alice would. His meanness is disguised beneath an interior of charm and fluffiness, but make no mistake – he is not a likable character either. Two people, one story, both unlikable. That’s an incredible feat.
“You care for me? Alice, I- I care about our principal, and my boss, and the lady at the donut shop who gives me extra donut holes. But I love you. And you know what that feels like? It’s like a fucking cheese grater against my heart.”
Having said that, this book is not without its faults. Despite the characters being unlikable, I should still feel connected to them. I should be able to understand them. One of the reasons why Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is my favorite book (yes, I know, how many times are you going to bring up that damn book, Aimal? Yada yada, it’s just that good) is because none of the characters are likable in the SLIGHTEST, yet I felt so invested in them. Their world, their lives, their well-being, their twisted thought processes. I like feeling a connect with the characters, and this book was lacking.
Moreover, the plot was rather lackluster. The synopsis makes it seem as if this book is about cancer. It’s fine that it’s not, just that being in remission from cancer is a huge thing. It can’t just be brushed under the rug to make way for an angsty romance which I wasn’t even interested in because I didn’t particularly feel like I knew either of the characters. The synopsis also mentions a bucket list- something which paid little to no role in the novel until, perhaps, the very end. Overall, the novel felt rather disjointed and even though I fully commend and appreciate the bold moves Murphy took, the book left me feeling heavily disappointed.