Book in Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

11:48 AM

Side Effects May Vary
Title: Side Effects May Vary
Author: Julie Murphy
Publisher: HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray
Publishing Date: March 18, 2014
Kindle: 336 pages
Format: ARC
Rating: 4/5 stars

A lot of cancer books have been popping in YA contemporary over the years, wherein we read about the main protagonist having cancer and then going through a couple of life changing events in his/her life. More so, each of these books also focus on the themes of hope, death, and the loss of life - all of which are intertwined. 

There have been a couple of cancer books that I've read, some I found very moving and others I found too overkill - overly dramatic and lacking of originality. You could say Side Effects May Vary belongs to the 1st pile. 

Given the abundance of cancer books in the industry, Side Effects May Vary is what you consider something "different" - a breath of fresh air you may say. Side Effects May Vary deviates from the normal cancer book formula : the main character has cancer, finds love, comes to terms with problems in her family, and/or goes through different experiences which make the character significantly a better person. Alas, main character still must die as that is the whole point of cancer books, that you let go of the people you love, but the protagonist would have died as a better person who has changed other people's lives in the process.

Side Effects May Vary does not follow this formula at all. It tells the story of Alice, a girl who gets diagnosed with cancer, and then recruits her childhood friend Harvey (who is actually in love with her) to help her do a 'bucket list' filled with some cool things but also some very awful things of what she must do before the cancer eats her body. Harvey reluctantly agrees to help her and they set forth to finish Alice's last hurrah. But what happens when Alice suddenly goes into remission? How does she deal with the consequences of her actions?

I've seen some people pegging this as the next The Fault in Our Stars, but let me just say that the similarity between these two books is the fact that the main characters both have cancer - and the similarities end there. Nevertheless, I liked Side Effects May Vary on its own. What I found amazing about it is how this is actually Julie Murphy's debut, yet it is so fantastically written, from the characters, the plot, the pacing, the development. It was obvious from the very start that Julie Murphy is the kind of author who knows and is comfortable with what she's doing - she has a clear voice and writing style. Side Effects May Vary is the kind of book that is so emotionally gripping and honest, that you started to become part of it. I I found myself becoming so engrossed with the characters, the world and the story that it was no wonder I spent late into the night finishing it. I liked its premise of how Alice's life only began on the year she thought she was going to die, and how she was the only person who could make the decision to actually start living and do something with her life. I liked how the story showed the consequences of one's actions, that you simply can't escape things from your life and that you have to face them headfirst.

What I really loved most about this book though is how relatable the characters are. My usual complaint with a lot of books I've read lately is that I just couldn't seem to understand what was going on in the character's head. Sadly, character is usually what brings the downfall of what could've been a 5 star read to just a 3 star one. I consider character as one of the most important things about a book, even more than the plot, at least for me. And so, Side Effects May Vary was able to give me the three-dimensional characters I have been looking for, not just the protagonists but even the secondary characters. Alice who is quite a despicable and selfish person was written so brilliantly as not just a character or a plot point, but she actually felt like a real person. It was interesting for me to read about a very unlikeable character doing very detestable things, but I found myself understanding her, the way I came to understand myself. I understood her motives for the things she did, and I was able to empathize with what she felt. I am sure that we have all been betrayed by a friend or boyfriend, unsure how to deal with feelings of love, and even have gone through hell because of school and family. Alice's problems are no stranger to our everyday concerns, which is what makes her character so fully developed.

I liked Harvey the most because he is one of those characters that I think should be part of the list of Glorious YA Characters (along with Peeta Mellark). He does not fall to the category of guys with the nice guy syndrome (which I actually really really hate), but he has much more to offer than that. He is kind, sweet and gentle, but he is also very strong and empowering. He loves Alice unconditionally but be doesn't allow himself to be pushed around, especially when Alice tells him to leave her alone. Even so, his love and care for Alice radiates during his time away from her because it is quite evident that he still looks out for Alice even so and loved her still obviously. The secondary characters were also well written, they didn't just have names but they also had personalities and character backgrounds written into them, such as Alice's parents, Harvey's mom, Luke and even Celeste.

Characters aside, the writing was also beautiful, perfectly and subtly capturing the mood of the story - emotional but not overly dramatic, light and happy at some parts but not overly cheerful, sweet but not overly cheesy. There were some nice quotes throughout the book, most of which I highlighted on my kindle. The style of the story I also found very apt, as it is told in a non linear manner - Now (after Alice goes into remission) and Then (when Alice first got diagnosed). It also alternates with Alice and Harvey's POV, which I liked because it gave us two different perspectives of the same story. We don't usually get the thoughts of a friend who witnesses the protagonist have cancer, but I like how Julie Murphy decided to do it here. Harvey's voice was fresh and distinct and it gave us insights on what it was like to watch your best friend and the love of your life suffer with cancer. It showed how deeply he cared for her. The POVs weren't confusing and they both had different voices. The Now and Then provided a great contrast between the setting of the story and the mood which I found a great writing technique. I don't think the story would've been as effective if it was told in only Alice's POV linearly or if it was done in 3rd person. This was a great creative decision from the author and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

I liked everything about this story (especially the ending, NO SPOILERS HERE!). The only reason why it isn't a 5 star is because it just didn't cling to me the way other YA Contemporaries did (i.e. Eleanor and Park). I acknowledge that this book is beautiful but it didn't impact me as much as others did. Meaning, I read the book, cried a little, put it down and that was it. However, I do recommend this book to anyone who's a fan of contemporary and I will be looking out for more of Julie Murphy's works.

Have you read Side Effects May Vary? What did you think of it? :)

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  1. I'm glad you liked this one, Kimi! I only gave it 2 stars--I didn't like any of the characters. D: Anyway, great review! :)

    Aimee @ Read by the Undead

    1. Aw, I guess it's not for everyone! Thanks Aimee! :)

  2. I haven't read this book, but I will eventually. I love that it isn't similar to TFIOS because TFIOS was a wonderful book, but I don't want to read something similar to it, I'd like for it to be unique, you know? Harvey sounds really nice :) Great review, I'll definitely have to read this one soon.

    1. Yes, TFIOS is good on its own, and so is this one too. :) Thanks for stopping by, Marianne!


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2015 Reading Challenge

2015 Reading Challenge
Kimi has read 3 books toward her goal of 100 books.