REVIEW: Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy

15728577My commute is spread out over three forms of transportation within an hour. First I take the bus for about 15 minutes, then the train for 25, then the tube for 5 (there’s a lot of walking and waiting in between). So, for me to see it as an effective commute read, a book will ideally have three qualities.

  • First, it will be on my Kindle. I’m as much of a lover of actual books as the next girl, but a lot of my commute ends up being one-handed so that I can hold onto something, and I don’t love ripping pages because I’m trying to turn them with a gloved pinky. Kindles make that easier.
  • Second, it will be formatted with short paragraphs and chapters so that I can come to a stopping point at a moment’s notice and pick up later.
  • Third, it will be entertaining and swift-moving enough to make my commute pass more quickly, but not so entertaining that I can’t stand tearing myself away from it to board the train or get off at the right stop on the tube. No one likes accidentally ending up in Canary Wharf. (NOTE: Just as I finished writing this review, a girl came up at work and said that she missed her stop by 4 because she was reading so intently. It’s a real threat, people.)

You can see how, while it would mean I did enjoy it, being an effective commute read might not be the best sentiment I can bestow upon a book, but here it is:

Side Effects May Vary is a very effective commute read.

The (Spoiler-Free) Summary

When Alice finds out that she is dying from cancer, she re-befriends her childhood best friend Harvey from whom she has become estranged in order to help her exact revenge on select classmates, and the two fall in love. However, Alice then learns that her cancer has gone into remission and then must learn to deal with the consequences of her actions: both the bad ones, and the seemingly good ones.

The Good Stuff

The story was certainly entertaining; there’s no question about that. It was funny at times and sad at others, and it moved at a swift enough pace. There were some great one-liners in there as well.

I quite enjoyed Harvey’s character, and he’s one of the few male YA protagonists I’ve read that seems like a believable high school boy, which is notable since the author is a woman.

The Bad Stuff

The character I didn’t love so much was Alice. She was petty and obnoxious, and though she had proper motivation and obstacles highlighted in the plot, I still didn’t quite believe in her as a character. Her relationship with Harvey is frankly abusive, and she doesn’t have to pay much of a price for her actions. Murphy tries to punish her with the mock funeral, but it doesn’t stand up as effective against everything she’s done. She’s an incredibly mean person without sufficient internal motivation (despite having all the external reasons one could hope for to choose from), and she doesn’t get much better. She manages to make some grand gestures without actually going through a believable character arc, and there is little satisfaction in the person she turns out to be.

Speaking of which, the ending was not bad in and of itself (it’s actually refreshing to see more ambiguous endings), but it wasn’t consistent with the rest of the book. They should have at least kissed for Pete’s sake. Ambiguity, if we’re to take this book into account, is not Murphy’s cup of tea, and the ending tries to make the book something that it’s spent the whole plot proving that it’s not. Melodrama is actually fine in YA books in my opinion, but the ending should be consistent, or the reader is left unsatisfied.

For example, I could have done with about two fewer instances of Alice worming her way back in and Harvey deciding to forgive, only to be let down again. It seems like she just repeated the same section of the plot over and over again in order to fill a word count.

Lastly, a lot of the characteristics of the characters and their relationships seemed highly unrealistic. Of course Alice is a freaking ballerina. Of course there is a character who has pop culture tastes beyond his years. Of course there’s the overachiever who behaves more like a middle-aged woman than a teenager, even when in a high school relationship. Harvey is the ONLY fully believable character in the book aside from maybe Mindy. (“Who?” you ask, even if you read the book. “Exactly,” I respond.)

My Recommendation

Like I said, this book is entertaining, and it does the trick if you’re looking for a good commute read or something to punctuate a busy day. It’s not, however, the Great American Novel; not even the YA one. Expect predictability, melodrama, and cheap tricks, but also expect an incredibly lovable male protagonist and a nice supply of little one-liners.

My Rating


2.5 out of 5 stars

I’m including discussion questions, but it’s really not that kind of book, so you can just ignore these.

Discussion Questions: (Spoiler-Free)

  1. Do her diagnosis and her mother’s affair excuse Alice’s actions?
  2. What about after she finds out she is in remission?
  3. How do you feel about Harvey’s decision to date someone else?
  4. Do you find these characters believable? How do they mirror/contrast with similar people you have known?
  5. Alice’s family life is interesting, even without the affair and the cancer. How do you think that influenced the person Alice is in the story?

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