I received this galley in consideration for an honest review.Side Effects May Vary Published by Harper Collins on March 18, 2014
Genres: Young Adult
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?
“Maybe I should have let it be a good thing and maybe I should have left all the horrible parts of me there in that hallway to be forgotten in that graveyard of memories, but I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t know how to separate out the wrong parts of me while keeping everything else.” – ARC pg. 253
Side Effects May Vary was one of the most thought provoking books I read last year. With a non-linear format (one of my favorite trends, recently) we see Alice’s life both before her diagnosis and after her remission. Alice’s life was not perfect, even before the cancer. I guess you could easily call her a bit of a mean girl. Her best friend from childhood, Harvey, and her interest in dance, were pushed to the side as the social lures of popularity took over. To me it seemed like she lost herself a little bit, but if you were expecting her to find herself again because of her illness, you’d only be partially correct. The character of Harvey was swoon worthy in his Heathcliff-like dedication to Alice, and it’s a little mind boggling because she treats him like crap. I mean, in a cringe-worthy kind of way. Yet, for the most part, Harvey is undeterred. He is determined, not only to see the good in Alice but also to see the good in his love for her. Their friendship, and what it becomes later, is complicated and emotionally crippling at times, but it’s also selfless and pure at others. Despite Alice’s ill conceived list and Harvey’s attempt to get her to see reason through some good deeds, I did not hate Alice. I did not hate her even a little bit.
My reaction to Side Effects May Vary was so strong that I had to take a step back and think about why this book felt like it simultaneously spoke to me and punched me in the nads. I think when we read a book about someone with cancer, we want them to be transformed. We want them to see the error of their ways, to gain new perspective…..we need them to have this spiritual transformation because it means that there was a reason for all the bad stuff. The truth is, though, that illness does not always have the spiritually transformative effect we want it to. Sometimes, people don’t learn anything from their struggles, or, if they do, it’s not the ‘I’m going to be good forever‘ variety. I think the quote above perfectly illustrates the fact that Alice was Alice. She knew she acted like an a-hole, she knew that, like all of us, she has some not so nice parts of her personality, but they were a part of her, and she didn’t know how to be anyone else, even if that hurt. There was such painful honesty in that realization. I think the reason this book stood out for me was because it did not try to show you this angel named Alice who had the perfect guy and treated him like crap, but learned her lesson because The Cancer cured her heart. Alice was a real and complicated character. She did profoundly shitty things to people who loved her and then she did some really selfless and caring things, too. I won’t say that she wasn’t transformed, because I think that the illness and experiences surrounding it did change her, but it was more about coming to terms with feelings that she had even before her diagnosis. The last line of this book (I won’t spoil it by telling you) was one of my all-time favorites and while I know that some have had a hard time with Alice’s flaws, I think it also blows holes in the theory that all ‘cancer’ books are there to soothe us in some way. I really appreciated the raw emotions and characters that were written with unflinching honesty and depth.