Who knew that John Green would spawn a YA sub-genre focused on kids with cancer? A few weeks ago, I reviewed Maybe One Day, about a girl whose best friend has cancer. Sadness overload. Well written sadness overload.
Now comes Side Effects May Vary, which puts an interesting spin on the whole teens-with-cancer thing. In this case, Alice had cancer.
Emphasis on “had.”
See, Alice was supposed to die. That was the plan all along, warped and heart breaking that it is. Diagnosed with a nearly always fatal form of leukemia, Alice draws up a “Dying To Do” list, a sort of bucket list for the sixteen-year-old set. Her best friend Harvey gamely does all he can to help her achieve her goals, if for no other reason than Harvey is deeply, irrevocably, inexplicably in love with Alice.
And he has been for three years.
During the year of Alice’s illness, Harvey’s jobs include helping her get a driver’s license and helping her retaliate against the people she thinks done her wrong. In Alice’s case, that is not an exclusive club. And in Alice’s case, most of the wrong done was because she deserved it.
Yes, I know it’s not becoming to speak ill of the would-be dead, but Alice deserves it. She is, as she herself admits, a bitch.
But Harvey loves her. Unconditionally, even. Well, he does want something in return – he wants to be loved back – but he’ll never ask for it.
As Alice wreaks havoc on ex-boyfriends and the people she detests, she also tries occasionally to do good. But really, in her mind, she’s dying, so why not have some fun? This is a dandy plan, except for one thing: Alice turns out to be a medical miracle. She goes into remission.
And when that happens, all of her plans – all of the experiences she shared with Harvey – are thrown into disarray.
You may wonder as you read this why Alice isn’t doing cartwheels of joy now that she gets to extend her time with Harvey. And you may wonder what on earth Harvey sees in her. She treats him horribly, before, during, and after the cancer. Does she care about him at all?
The thing is, though, Alice doesn’t think of this as a new lease on life. She thinks of it as even greater uncertainty. How long will the remission last? A year? Two? Forever? How can she emotionally commit to anything now that the one thing she held to be certain – the cancer would kill her – no longer exists?
Julie Murphy unfolds her story in alternate voices, Alice’s and Harvey’s, and also in alternate timeframes, “then” (aka During Cancer) and “now” (aka During Remission). We get to see Alice and Harvey’s relationship unfold, and we become deeply emotionally invested in the two of them. Try and not love Harvey. I dare you. TRY IT. It is impossible, faithful readers. Harvey is one of the loveliest high school boys you will ever, ever meet. You will wonder where Harvey was when you were sixteen. And you will want to throttle Alice for her abuse of him and his feelings.
These are two complex, entertaining characters. Alice is awful, but if you can’t see how and why that is, then you will miss the emotional crux of the book. Sure, she was no peach before cancer, but how can she face the future – a future she thought she wouldn’t have? She knows that life is tenuous at best, and to risk ceding control of her heart to anyone is verboten to her.
Gosh, I loved this book. I really did. It isn’t perfect – Alice’s “enemies” are a bit too predictable – but it’s just so beautifully written. And the ending is perfect. Julie Murphy knows what to leave for her audience, and what to leave for her characters.