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Book Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Alice is diagnosed with leukemia and finally accepts the fact that she’s not going to live a long life.  She convinces her best friend Harvey, who has been in love with her forever, to help her fulfill a bunch of her bucket-list items.  These include things such as revenge on an ex-boyfriend, random acts of kindness, and a bunch of other important life stuff.  But just when she feels like she’s ready to peace out, she gets startling news: she’s in remission.  Her parents are thrilled; Harvey is overjoyed and cautiously hopeful that they can finally be together.  But Alice is at a loss at how to start living like she isn’t dying.  Can she repair the damage she’s done to those around her, and can she even allow herself to be the kind of vulnerable she’ll need to be in order to be with Harvey?

Julie Murphy’s just the latest author to offer readers a book about a teen with cancer, but she takes that trope and turns it on its ear.  Instead of having Alice lament the fact that she’s dying, Murphy jumps forward, for the most part, to where Alice has accepted it and is making peace with her time that’s left.  The result is a prickly, acerbic heroine who isn’t always the most likable of protagonists.  But it works, because Murphy is firmly in control of her characters and the narrative.

The book alternates between narration from Alice and her best friend Harvey.  Both voices work and are distinct enough that readers shouldn’t confuse the two.  However, the narrative demands extra attention because the two of them switch back and forth between the “then” and the “now” of the story, forcing readers to keep two different timelines in their heads.  Because Murphy is a strong enough reader, this largely works.  The fact that the characters are very real and authentic versions of themselves helps further this device.

Alice is a complex character, which is why she works on the page.  If Alice were only a revenge-seeking superbrat, readers would grow tired of her antics very quickly.  She’s not the nicest person, and she recognizes it fully. Her ability to be completely honest with herself elevates her characterization.  She’s kind of the worst, and she knows it–but she’s also dealing with the very real, very looming threat of the cancer coming back at any moment.  This makes everything about her situation all the more raw, moving, and honest.

This one is a stand-out in the cancer book genre (is that a thing?).  Murphy is a talented writer who has crafted very real teens with a narrative worth telling.  Readers will be glued to the book’s hopeful end, wondering what will come next for these incredibly well-rendered characters.  Recommended.

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy. Harper Collins/Balzer + Bray: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

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