Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Side Effects May Vary
Julie Murphy
Series: Standalone
Released: March 8th, 2014
Publisher: Balzer+Bray
Rating: 2.5 stars
Word Rating: Welcome to Conflicted City
Reviewed by: Ellis

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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.

Side Effects May Vary is a perfect example of a book where the analytical part of my brain goes: "Yes. This is good. Julie Murphy is taking risks. I like this. Things are confusing, people are conflicted, characters are emotionally constipated.", while the more emotional part goes a little like: bored bored bored DO NOT SHIP what is happening EW HARVEY GO AWAY sympathise sympathise Dennis I like you YES ALICE. CRUSH. HIM. nooooooo I don't want this HARVEY LEAVE THIS STORY IMMEDIATELY nooooooo I don't like this THE END. As you can see, the people in the story weren't the only ones confused and conflicted. My mother would say it's the Gemini in me. Sure, let's go with that.

I know most people's issue with this book is that they didn't like Alice, but I think it's clear that my biggest problem was Harvey, which is quite problematic considering he narrates half of the story. I was talking to Christina about this and she said she thinks that liking this book majorly depends on personal experience. Let's all bow down to the wisdom of Ms. Reader of Fictions, because in my case, it is true. Let me explain. Even though our names are eerily similar, I am no Alice. I would never spend the last months of my life carrying out a bucket list of revenge, which I honestly thought quite petty, but let me get back to that in a sec. 

However, I have dated/been involved with some Harveys. I guess I should be thankful for this character because I now have an umbrella term for needy guys who get heavily attached way too quickly and guilt-trip you when you don't feel the same intense, all-encompassing love for them as they do for you. Here's the thing with Side Effects May Vary. At a certain point, I couldn't even tell you what this book was about. Is it about Harvey and Alice getting together? Is it about Alice having to deal with the consequences of her evil master plan, even though she assumed she wouldn't be alive to have to deal with those? Is about about Alice getting her life together again? I just didn't know. 

That is, until I reached the end and it became glaringly obvious that this book might as well have been a love letter to Harvey, which, again, is quite problematic if you don't even like the character. Almost everyone in the novel defends the fact that Harvey loves Alice so much there isn't any room for anyone else in his heart. Um, instead of collectively guilt-tripping Alice because she doesn't entirely feel the same, how about we tell the dude with a full heart that this isn't really healthy and that he probably should find some other passions in life?

One of the deciding moments for me was when Alice tries to tell Harvey that she wishes she could love as freely and abundantly as him, but has an issue with emoting and is scared of her own feelings. I didn't really identify with Alice as a character, but this is one instance where I can completely sympathise. Harvey, of course, gives her shit over it, because he couldn't possibly fathom that there are people who don't carry their hearts on their sleeves. Alice tries to make him understand why emotions are not easy for her to deal with and instead of seeing it as the cry for help that it is, Harvey gets pissed because he thinks Alice is playing with him again. About 80% of his angst could be resolved if he would just listen. 

Look, I'm not saying Harvey doesn't have reason to be pissed at Alice. Pre-remission Alice treated him like shit, and was very clear about the fact that she was using him. She's also the version of Alice I had major issues with. Her motivations for getting revenge are weak and petty and she doesn't even think about how her master plan of revenge might affect people that are only vaguely connected to her schemes. The thing is, Harvey knew she was using him. Everyone knew. But he agreed to being used because it allowed him to spend the last months of her life with the girl he loved. The other thing is, there is a definite change in post-remission Alice. She is unsure and confused and she chooses to deal with her problems by completely ignoring them, which, admittedly, isn't the best of strategies, but also kind of understandable, I think.

Alice and Harvey have one of the unhealthiest dynamics I've ever seen, pun not intended. Harvey is completely obsessed with her. He admits that all he wants out of life is being with her, and when the news comes that she's in remission, he just expects them to be together forever because impending death was the only thing that kept them apart, right? Wrong. I mean, the fact that Alice doesn't even call him after she's gotten the remission news should be an indication that them picking up where they left is not that self-evident for her. 

There really is a difference between who Alice is and how Harvey sees her. This is something that's already obvious in the first two chapters. When Harvey describes Alice, she seems fragile and lifeless. When the story switches to her POV, it becomes energetic. My theory would be that Harvey wants her sick and weak, because that's one of the few times that she actually lets him in. Too bad he's also the kind of person who genuinely wonders whether cancer is hardest on the people who have it, or the those who have to see their beloved ones go through it. While I understand the sentiment, I'm also pretty sure it's the people who are actually dying who have it harder, but maybe that's just me. What's more, Harvey might say he loves Alice all he wants, but I'm not convinced he even knows her. He has this idealised image of her (and their relationship) in his head but he barely looks at reality. I think Alice sees this and tries to confront him with reality, but it's all a bit of a mess, to be honest.

For serious, I unship it so hard. 

Then there is this gem of a line, which luckily never makes its way from Harvey's brain to his mouth, though maybe it should have, just to let Alice know what she's in for:

"I like creating the rhythm of your body."

He is talking about her ballet class, where he plays the piano. Also, this is creepy as hell and probably the moment I officially decided that this Alice/Harvey ship was no bueno. They need to communicate beyond

Harvey: "I love you."
Alice: "I know."

It might seem that I hated this book, but that isn't the case at all. In fact, I applaud Julie Murphy for the risk she took with this relationship. There was a certain moment - bed, beach house, for those who have read it - that was actually kind of sweet in all its dysfunction. If we'd had more of that - them being open and honest about how confused and dysfunctional they are - I might have shipped it. If the timeline hadn't been as distorted, I might have shipped it. In addition, it takes talent and skill to bring me back from a point where I considered DNFing to one of being semi-okay with what I just read. There were some funny moments. I might not have exactly liked the characters, but I can't deny that their characterisation was incredibly strong. Oh, I did really like Dennis, Harvey's best friend. He seems like someone who knows how to handle situations like a decent person.

Listen to Tyra, Harvey. She's been teaching America's finest how to publicly conduct themselves for 10 years now.


  1. I am still on the fence with this one, great review!
    Missie @ A Flurry of Ponderings

  2. This book is getting slaughtered in reviews. It seems, however, that if someone is looking for a highly dysfunctional book, this is the ticket right here. I'm afraid I'll rage myself into a fit if I pick it up, but I love how you defended it and put a positive spin on a crappy storyline, Eliis.

  3. Could have sworn I'd read and commented on this already, btu apparently not. Let's do this!

    Lol at the gemini in you.

    Harveys are terrible. I would totally bicycle away and then ignore all communications.This is the correct response, Alice. But, also, I think Alice really liked having him pining after her. I knew some Alices. Like, she doesn't LIKE him, but she loves that she can inspire such devotion (read: obsession) in someone. It makes her feel powerful, and obviously Alice gets off on that.

    So I kind of felt bad for Harvey. But, yeah, as you say, he really doesn't think things through. He has a one-track mind, and all it can think about is how he and Alice would be perfect together.

    You know, Harvey's trying to turn Alice into his MPDG, but she won't let him, which is why the ending doesn't work. At the end, she's all, oh okay I'll try to do that then. Um, no. I REALLY want to know if the pub forced a happy ending on it, because it really does not fit.


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