Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy
Balzer + Bray, 2015, 352 pages
For a while now, in all of the book blogs I follow, I’ve seen an explosion of Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’. This review is not about Dumplin‘, but about another of Murphy’s books, Side Effects May Vary. In this novel, high school student Alice discovers a secret her truth-obsessed mother has been keeping just before Alice is diagnosed with cancer. With the uncertainty of her illness, Alice decides this is a great time to get back at her bullies and adversaries through humiliation tactics. Not counting on getting well again, Alice has to handle the consequences of her actions when she is declared healthy by her doctor.
Maybe I wasn’t paying close attention to Side Effects May Vary, but the book just wasn’t that memorable for me. Though the characters were really refreshing for young adult fiction (more on that later), and the plot was relatively original (despite blurbs insisting fans of The Fault in Our Stars would love this one), there have been multiple times since I’ve read it where I had to go, “Oh, yeah — I forgot I read that. What was it called? What was it about?” Part of the problem of not really remembering much about it is not really knowing what it was that made it so bland. As I’ve mentioned both characters and plot were interesting, I suspect it was the prose, though I don’t recall it being bad — it was just there. It conveyed a story, it did its job, and that was it.
But for all that, the book is full of great moments that, as a whole, are not greater than their individual parts. Murphy places her characters in really interesting places that felt new and untouched, despite other books that have scenes in similar locations — doctor’s offices, school gyms, beach houses. They’re not terribly common in fiction, but they’re not exactly uncommon, either. Despite this, each place felt fresh and each place enhanced the moments which took place in them. This seems paradoxical — bland prose that somehow makes the settings present and bitingly real? Maybe it’s the mundane style of the language that grounds the rest of the novel making it almost hyper-real. I realize the vagueness of this review isn’t very helpful, but the vagueness is the best representation of the book.
Right — so, characters. If you’re looking for a book which allows you to fall in love and cheer for the main character, this isn’t it. Alice is incredibly unlikable to the very last page. This makes an interesting point about fiction and literature — does a character have to change and learn after they’ve experienced the conflict of their novel in order to make the work worthwhile? Certainly other pieces of literature have taken on this topic (more adeptly, no doubt), but Murphy does it well enough to make it evident. Alice is vengeful, mean, manipulative, uncommunicative, and spiteful. This is the case even prior to her diagnosis, but it’s especially true after (and, okay, we can attribute that special degree of meanness to her fears and the “screw it” attitude that can come with impending death). But it’s so different from the timid, bookish, painfully nice girls you see in young adult fiction over and over again. And, while I don’t know that it works especially well here, I appreciate the attempt all the same (and humbly request authors write more unlikable protagonists).
Another central character, Harvey, serves as Alice’s best friend/love interest. He’s got a lot of interesting things going on, too, despite his trope-y nice-guy persona. While being a nice guy, Harvey isn’t too afraid to stand up to Alice when she’s being awful (you know, often), and he’s complemented nicely by two other tertiary characters who play greater roles than just place-holders, thankfully.
The primary issues I have with Alice and Harvey are, interestingly enough, one of the places they overlap significantly. Alice, a former ballet dancer, has given up dancing due to a seeming lack of interest, though her teacher (Harvey’s mom) remarks how wonderful a dancer she is. Meanwhile, Harvey feels similarly about piano, which he has agreed to play for his mother’s ballet classes. I’m frustrated at this cliché of having a hobby and being a borderline-prodigy at it but not finding it fulfilling. I don’t think it serves much of a purpose and it never really has.
This final disappointing plot point aside, Side Effects May Vary isn’t bad, it’s just not terribly memorable. If you’re looking for something a little different and some quick escapism, this might be an option for you and, with the right level of expectation, you’ll enjoy it.
❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤