Synopsis: What if you’d been living your life as if you were dying—only to find out that you had your whole future ahead of you?
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?
Huge thank you to Balzer + Bray and Edelweiss for this ARC!
I generally have an issue with cancer stories. Part of it is due to the fact that cancer is a huge part of my life and something that sticks with me every day as a caretaker of someone who suffers from it. For this reason, I generally tend to be hard on books related to the topic because I often feel like they miss the point in terms of understanding where those types of people are coming from.
Thankfully, Side Effects May Vary, is not in that pet peeve category, as it actually told a story that impressed me a fair bit. Alice, our protagonist, isn’t the most likable person and I feel like she is generally going to be the deciding factor for if you can handle this book. She’s downright nasty at times, but not without reason: cancer patients, whether they are in remission or not, still suffer from side effects, meaning everything from their bodies to their emotions, they are all simply out of whack and attempting to repair. For me personally, this is completely evident in how Alice’s narrative works.
Alice doesn’t want people feeling sorry for her, she wants to live as normal of a life as she can, but having cancer doesn’t give you a sense of normality. Everything is more challenging and even frustrating. She has deal with people telling her they totally know how she feels, but reality — how the hell do you know what a person with cancer feels like? I hate that. I hate when people say stuff like that because in a lot of cases they don’t realize it’s more harmful than helpful. Unless you’ve been in a cancer patient’s shoes or have a chronic illness, it’s impossible to know how someone feels and you sense Alice’s frustrations throughout the story because she’s treated like she’s diseased.
I’m not saying Alice is entirely someone you can sympathize because she shows some malice at times, particularly towards poor Harvey, who has been with her through thick and thin. Harvey knows he’s being used and yet he is compelled to help her through her chemo treatments and even afterwards when she’s in remission. While at first he’s quite the doormat, some of the best scenes in the book are when Harvey fights back against Alice, forces Alice to confront reality, a reality beyond life and death, and tells her enough is enough.
Harvey is the character you actually read this book for. For those who don’t know what it’s like to take of someone with cancer, Harvey’s perspective may be more on the eye opening side. Generally the caretakers are the one ensuring the person has as good a quality of life as possible, but they often also the ones who feel taken advantage of. Alice often came across like she takes advantage of Harvey on purpose, but I think there are times in the story where she does wrestle with how right or wrong it is. Harvey is so willing, so it’s so easy to make the assumption that he’ll just always be there. Once you’ve pushed someone to the edge, the way Alice does, then you realize how difficult it is to do things for yourself after having someone else take care of you for so long.
I felt like when I was reading Side Effects May Vary, that I completely understood both sides of the narrative. I’ve been in Harvey’s shoes, and I live with an Alice at times. Were there times I wanted to slap Alice about? Absolutely, particularly when she was at school and disrespecting everyone around her. She’s frustrating, she’s mean, and yet you know there are parts of her that don’t mean to be that way. Chemo does make you behave in strange ways, there’s no doubt about it.
This book isn’t going to be for everyone, and it’s one where it’s worth it to read a few pages to decide if you can tolerate Alice or not. Harvey is amazing and his parts of the book were always my favourite, and admittedly Alice won me over in the end, especially with how the story ends, it’s easily her most selfless act in the text. Side Effects May Vary is a difficult read, but it’s also a very rewarding one if you can stick with it.