Review: Side Effects May Vary

I received this book for free from YA Books Central in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Side Effects May VarySide Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy
Published by Balzer + Bray on March 18, 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: YA Books Central
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three-half-stars

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.(

As the title indicates, reactions to this books may vary. Indeed, they already have varied quite widely amongst my friends, varying from hatred to love, hitting pretty much every range in between. Coming off a streak of books I didn’t like, I was admittedly nervous to embark on Side Effects May Vary. Now that I’ve read it, I can definitely understand the responses it’s been getting, and am happy to report that I find myself favorable.

Side Effects May Vary reminded me most of the books of Courtney Summers. See, Alice is not a nice girl. She’s popular, bitchy and apt to say and do mean things without any guilt. Trying to act nice exhausts her and saying nice things is even more painful to her. Whether you like Side Effects May Vary will depend to a great degree whether you can comprehend Alice, and if you can avoid loathing her. She’s not necessarily likable but if you actively hate her, it’s going to be a problem. Personally, I thought she was well-drawn, and appreciated her candor and bitterness, as a welcome break from the sweet, quirky heroines that predominate. It helps too that Alice truly knows the kind of person she is, and suffers no delusions of herself as a saint.

What I found most compelling about Side Effects May Vary was the unique look at cancer. Most novels about cancer focus on cancer. The character gets it, suffers, and either dies or doesn’t at the end of the book. In this case, the reader learns about Alice’s cancer at the end of chapter one, and learns that she goes into remission a couple chapters later, miraculously maybe safe. Side Effects May Vary is less about cancer and more about the way cancer and then the absence of it affected Alice’s relationships.

The narrative switches between Alice and Harvey, and also between the present timeline, remission, and the past, cancer. Murphy does a good job with the dual narrative and the timeline hopping. For all of the switching around that was happening, I was never confused or unsure which perspective I was reading. Harvey’s essentially a foil to Alice, the perpetual nice guy doormat.

Harvey had been in love with Alice for years, but she didn’t give him a real chance until she found out she was dying of leukemia. While she deteriorated, their love bloomed. Once her cancer goes away, she no longer knows how to be around him. Now this I loved. Alice fears commitment so much more when she has to live with it, which is completely logical to me, but maybe not to most people. With so much instalove or dumping people for their own good, it’s rare to see fear of commitment done well, but Alice is the poster girl for it.

The ending felt a bit too easy to me. That’s about as specific as I can be without spoilers, but a lot of people did things they shouldn’t have and don’t ever have to really deal with the emotional aftermath to a degree which seems realistic. View Spoiler »

Though not as acerbically witty as Courtney Summers’ novels, Side Effects May Vary has a similar appeal. If you like somewhat less likable main characters or want to read a cancer book that is not your usual cancer book, I recommend Side Effects May Vary.

Favorite Quote:

“You freak the shit out of me, Harvey. I don’t get it—how you can feel like there are no consequences for living with your feelings on your sleeve. Because there are, you know. There are consequences so horrible, and I wish I could ignore them like you can—the feelings and their consequences. I wish it didn’t matter to me.”

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

This is so totally something Alice would say to Harvey.

This is so totally something Alice would say to Harvey.

14 responses to “Review: Side Effects May Vary”

  1. Ahhh, Awesome Awkward GIF is Awesome.

    It’s so funny that today there were two reviews for this book in my bloglovin feed and they both differ so greatly.

    I like that you mention there is a slight similarity between CS’s books and this one. I like CS’s stuff quite a bit, so this makes me think that I should read this a lot sooner than I had intended.

    Great review, Christina. 🙂
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    • Christina Franke says:

      All Awkward gifs are awesome, because yesssss.

      I mean, I don’t think Murphy is quite as brutal or quite as witty/clever, but they definitely have a similar mostly unrepentant mean girl vibe, which I really like.

      It’s definitely a book that’s going to be polarizing, so I’m not surprised. :-p

  2. I love that the main character is the mean girl. I feel like books – YA especially – don’t really focus on the mean girl as the “heroine.” I do like the one point that you made that after her remission, she doesn’t know how to be around Harvey. She didn’t miraculously change her attitude because she was cured. Looking forward to giving this book a shot, too! 🙂
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    • Christina Franke says:

      Yeah, the book definitely has some obvious flaws, but I loved that Murphy took some chances, and it’s really different from other things. The girl who’s terrified of commitment and the fact that romance is easier when she’s dying. It flips some stereotypes on their heads.

  3. I really love the fact that this one is so different than other books about cancer, and how the main character in’t the nicest person or the most redeemable. I’m really curious to see how I’ll react to it.
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    • Christina Franke says:

      It’s a hit or miss sort of book, for sure. I liked how much she branched out from typical MCs, but they definitely both rub people the wrong way sometimes.

  4. Yay I’m glad that you liked Alice’s character and the whole idea of this one! I was one of those people who really actively hated her, because even though I understood why she was angry all the time, it still made me sooo unspeakably angry. Also, I definitely do think that ending was too easy, as well. Harvey just felt like a total pushover at times to me, but fantastic review, Christina! <33
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    • Christina Franke says:

      Lol, I totally get hating her. There’s so much reason to hate both of them actually. The reason I rated up is because I felt like I GOT them even though I didn’t necessarily like them. I also liked how different they were. How often is the guy clingy and weak like that? The ending, though, I didn’t like. Really don’t ship it.

  5. Rachel says:

    THIS BOOK SOUNDS SO GOOD. We all know how much I love “mean girl” characters because those are the ones I totally “get.” Also, I love how this one focuses more on the consequences/side effects of after because so many cancer books focus on the same things. This one sounds like it has a lot more depth or more exploration into life with/without cancer rather than the usual one track storyline we see.
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    • Christina Franke says:

      I would actually be REALLY interested to see what you specifically think of this one, because people have been all over the place on it and you have pretty unique taste anyway. I hope you like it, but you’ll have interesting thoughts either way, I’m sure.

  6. Heather says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one! I’ve been curious about it for a while now, but I wasn’t sure if this would be a story I would genuinely enjoy since this territory has a tendency to get schmaltzy. In some ways, it’s almost more reassuring to know that the main character is unlikeable, since I perversely tend to enjoy those more. Even if I don’t wind up getting this on audio, I’m so much more excited now having heard your thoughts. Yay for non-cheesy cancer teen book!

    • Christina Franke says:

      Oooh, yeah, I wouldn’t call this one schmaltzy at all. It does have a host of weaknesses, but schmaltz is not one of them, minus like one scene.

  7. I am glad I have a copy of Side Effects May Vary, because I am sold on it. Like, I am okay with it not being as acerbic as Summers. I like the fact that the author writes an unlikeable heroine, because sometimes that’s important to read about and you make the whole point about fear of commitment and that’s just really appealing to me.
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    • Christina Franke says:

      I think you will probably enjoy it, though who knows, since it’s been all over. Like, I think I was in a forgiving place. It has flaws and I totes get how some people have hated it, but I was more in the mood to look at the things she did well. Like, it could have done what it was doing better, but it’s a debut and she tackles interesting subjects.

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