Book Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy
I was taking Zofran, the anti-nausea medicine often given to cancer patients, for Hypermesis Gravidarum during my last pregnancy – sick, barely surviving, and on bed rest – when my best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. We spent the next 7 months sharing horror stories about vomiting, her from chemo and me from HG, Zofran, and more by phone. We bonded over our shared misery – and fear. Who else could I turn to who could understand that sure the Zofran might take the edge off of the nausea, but it didn’t help enough and it came with its own consequences. Since this time, I have been fascinated with cancer stories.
And when I say cancer stories, you are probably thinking The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which I do in fact love. But in all honesty, one of the first cancer stories I can remember reading is A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin. Written in the 90s, this is the story of two best friends – both dancers – and how their friendship is affected when one of them is diagnosed with cancer. What I remember most about the book was how angry the girl is, and understandably so. She has something in common with Alice.
Meet Alice. Alice used to take dance, but she quit when she began high school. She started dating. And one day she sees something that dramatically impacts her life. But she doesn’t have time to process it because one day at school she faints. It turns out, Alice has cancer. So Alice put together a list of things she wants to do before she dies, and some of the items on that list include taking revenge on various people in her life. Dying is a messy business.
So she enlists her friend Harvey – not a Pooka, a real friend – and together they work their way through most of the list. But then, Alice goes into remission. Suddenly Alice is no longer dying, and she is left dealing with the not only the emotional aftermath of her illness, but of all that she has done in the name of dying.
SEMV is told in alternating view points in both the past and the present, so you have to pay attention to who is telling the story – Alice or Harvey – and when. This format works really well for this story as there is the slow reveal that builds suspense and keeps you turning the page. But this is, ultimately, a rich study in character.
Alice is a first class bitch with a capital B. She is angry, not just because she is dying (which is reason enough), but because of THAT thing and the events that unfolded around it. She is mad at the world and the people specifically in hers. And yes, she is mad that she is dying. She is not nice about it at all, and it is a revelation in how honest and raw and completely boiling over with rage Alice can be. She uses her illness to her advantage at times, she manipulates, she schemes. And although you hate her, Murphy gives her those moments that still allow you to feel some compassion for her; she occasionally lifts the veil of anger and gives Alice that spark of humanity that allows you to completely empathize with this flawed young lady. And then, Murphy punches you right in the gut with a few things. It is a glorious emotionally messy roller coaster.
But Harvey . . . I love him. Some will say this is Alice’s story, but I say it is Harvey’s. Harvey is the tried and true lifelong best friend who made the mistake of falling in love when the other person didn’t, not really. But when Alice calls and asks for help, Harvey will be there time and time again. But this being used, it changes you, and it is so fascinating to watch Harvey spiral. It is interesting to note that this is an example of an abusive relationship, and it is Alice that is abusing Harvey, not physically but very much emotionally in the way she manipulates and leads him on; there are not a lot of examples of this in YA lit but it does indeed happen so I was glad to see this portrayal.
Murphy is a gifted storyteller and presents us with some contemporary fiction that is achingly real and honest. The truth is, dying is a messy business. Everyone handles it differently; there is no one right way to die. Murphy pulls back the curtain and presents us with another point of view and in doing so gives us a compelling read about people spiraling out of control in anger and desperation and their attempts to put the pieces back together again when that spiral is stopped, or at least put on hold for a while. There are no happy endings here, but maybe the possibility of healing and growth. Well, I guess the fact that she is no longer dying is a happy ending, but they’ve made such a mess of things that there is a lot of rebuilding that needs to happen.
For those who need to know, there is language, drug use and some mild sexual situations. Highly recommended. Coming in March from HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray. I received an ARC from a friend to review.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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