Side Effects May Vary is about Alice, a teenage girl who is diagnosed with cancer. Knowing that she is going to die soon, she feels free to do whatever she wants, unburdened from the threat of her actions’ consequences. Consequently, she resolves to complete a bucket list, which includes performing an unexpected act of kindness and seeking revenge against people who have wronged her. She enlists childhood friend and persistent admirer Harvey for help, who reluctantly obliges, driven by the prospect of spending time with her. Fully aware of his this, Alice manipulates him into doing things for her; although Harvey is semi-conscious of this, he doesn’t care – he’s in love. Alice suppresses her true feelings for him, fearing the temporary, short-term nature of her life and succumbing to the effect this has on her decisions.
Moreover, Alice isn’t your typical cancer patient/survivor: unlike so many idealistic, exceptionally talented or love-obsessed YA characters, she is unbelievably pessimistic, self-absorbed and manipulative. She hates many of those around her, and mistreats the people that care about her. It comes as a big, not entirely pleasant shock for her when she goes into remission, as she must face up to everything she’s done, as well as figuring out her relationship with Harvey. Alternating chapters are set ‘Then’ (when Alice had cancer) and ‘Now’ (after she went into remission), with both Alice and Harvey narrating. Although officially the novel is about Alice’s bucket list and its effects, the majority follows Alice and Harvey’s complicated, ever-changing relationship.
This book is a quick, easy read, and a welcome relief from the heavier books I had been reading. I stayed interested in the story the whole way through, partly because of the suspense and interest that the unique structure brought to the novel (although at times they confused the plot), but also because it was simply enjoyable to read. It wasn’t particularly cringeworthy or unrealistic, despite its somewhat simplistic plot. It was well-written (for a YA book) – I can say this not because I noticed it, but because I didn’t: it wasn’t irritating or clunky, or even noteworthy at all, but it did its job by remaining unnoticeable, letting the plot take centre stage. This often happens in YA literature, or at least is aspired towards – and I think Murphy achieved it.
However, there were also some issues with Side Effects May Vary: firstly, many of the characters were two-dimensional. Although this is kind of understandable for secondary characters like Deborah, it’s not sufficient with the protagonist – much of Alice’s hatred and pessimism was left unexplained, and was therefore unconvincing. Secondly, as many people have found, I grew tired of Alice and her ‘spontaneous’, egotistical and sometimes gratuitous ways. The way she treated Harvey was awful, and it was frustrating that he put up with it for so long. Finally, the ending, although effective, was unsatisfying; the book didn’t feel finished. It was a really good part of the plot, but would have been better if it wasn’t the ending – perhaps the book would have benefitted from being longer, with more time on the end of the plot.
You would enjoy this book if you’re looking for a good-quality (although not exceptional or mind-blowing) YA book: it’s short, light and easy to read, with a relatively unsophisticated plot. It’s also interesting as an insight into life with a terminal illness, and its effect on one’s thoughts and decisions.
My Ratings (out of 10 As):