Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review - Side Effects May Vary


Side Effects May Vary
Julie Murphy
Penguin Australia

2 out of 5 stars

It seems inevitable that this book - about a teenage girl with cancer - will be compared to John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. But the two books couldn't be more different. I was really excited about reading this, because I'd heard good things, and the blurb made it sound like it was going to be all about Harvey helping Alice cross things off her bucket list and then Alice having to process the aftermath of that once she goes into remission. And to some extent, that's what I got.

For the most part, however, I got a book about an angry, confused and - to some extent - self-destructive teenage girl. The narrative is split between Alice and Harvey, and also split between the past ("then") and the present ("now"). The split narrative worked well, and the story unfolding gradually throughout the book kept me interested. The writing flowed well and the two voices were sufficiently different and authentically teenaged.

Let's talk about the characters though. Alice is NOT a likeable character. Yes, she's dealing with a lot. But she's horrible to everyone around her. Her bucket list is less "things I would like to accomplish before my life is cut short" and more "I want revenge before it's too late". There's not really any other way of putting it: Alice is a bitch.
Something like this. Also, source.

I tried to understand her, to put myself in her shoes, to see WHY she acts the way she does. But I couldn't. When she's sick, she loves Harvey. But the minute she's in remission, she pushes him away because it's too much pressure. When he's single and following her around like a puppy dog, she's annoyed by his presence and his neediness. But the minute he has a girlfriend? She's brushing her boobs on his arm and suggesting they go skinny dipping. She doesn't want Harvey, but she doesn't want anyone else to have Harvey either.

Harvey, for the duration of the book, is a doormat. And he just goes with it almost every time.
Alice says jump, he says how high. Alice says "I want to destroy people's lives", Harvey says "Hmm. I don't really agree with it, but OKAY." Alice tells him she hates him and Harvey says "I'm here all the same". Sure, he's loyal to his friend. But he's loyal to the point of pathetic. Not to mention the fact that he's watching her fade away before his eyes as a result of her chemotherapy, and he's still focusing on how much he'd like to have sex with her. And the worst part? He *knows* that he's a doormat but does nothing to change it:
"I didn't know what was worse: the fact that everyone could see that she was using me or the fact that I could so readily admit it."

Alice does change over the course of the book and eventually sees the error of her ways. But for me, it was too little too late. Yes, she's got cancer and is in excruciating pain a lot of the time. (Which reminds me, why on earth was she still being sent to school most days?!?!?!) Yes, she's afraid that her life is going to be over well before she's ready for it to be. But that doesn't give her a free pass for ruining people's lives and abusing her friends and family members.

Still, despite all of this, it was an interesting take on the whole teenagers-with-cancer concept. Getting a second chance isn't always a good thing. She's still dealing with uncertainty, as her doctors tell her with every visit that she's in remission FOR NOW and that things could change at any moment. Perhaps, with a little therapy, Alice would have been a different character. Perhaps, if her turn around had started earlier in the book, I would have had a different reading experience. It's not a bad book - it's well written and something very different in YA. But it is a frustrating book, if only because you can't reach into the pages and shake some sense into Alice... 
K xx

Disclaimer: I received a free ARC from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Side Effects May Vary will be available in Australia on 26 March.

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