“I knew what this looked like. It looked like I was using Harvey. But here was the reality of the situation: the minute my life went from semipermanent to most likely temporary, I decided to latch on to everything in my world that had always been permanent, and for me, Harvey was so permanent he was concrete.”
In Julie Murphy’s first novel Side Effects May Vary, childhood best friends Alice and Harvey find themselves together again after Alice is diagnosed with leukemia. Divided between Alice and Harvey’s perspectives in chapters titled “then” and “now,” the novel follows the two on every path of Alice’s journey with cancer, from the beginning of high school and her revenge-filled kick-the-bucket list to the other side, where Alice learns she’s in remission.
But is remission the good news it should be? For Alice, who was preparing to die, the situation is bittersweet as she must now deal with the repercussions of her actions and face the realities of her relationship with Harvey, especially as he struggles with his feelings for her, reflecting, “But, really, I loved her, and that hurt the worst of all because I was tired of being her debris.” Will she lose the best friend she finally connected with again when she was dying? Or will she find a way to adjust to truly living once more without pushing Harvey and his love away?
Murphy has crafted narrators that both fight and balance each other as they struggle to find their footing in their own past and present. Alice’s narration is particularly polarizing, allowing for Harvey’s emotions to inform the reader as Alice breaks down both the manic pixie dream girl trope and the interplay of likable and realistic narrators, as she describes, “I was rotten on the inside, and I didn’t know if that had happened over time or if it had always been so.” While the novel hinges on Alice’s diagnosis, the real meat of the plot concerns the very side effects of the diagnosis, pre- and post-remission, and how it impacts each character as they collide with Alice and Harvey’s story.
Words, words, words.
In addition to being a Hamlet quote and the filler I put in rough drafts when I can’t think of what to write next, the phrase “words, words, words” sums up my entire life.
I currently own over 400 books, book fairs and library trips were a constant presence in my childhood, and one of my first memorable bonds with a teacher was the result of my love of reading. My identity as a reader was one that I clung to, and it was an identity that led me to another identity, that of an aspiring writer. In one of the very first stories I ever tried to write, pounding away at the keys of my family’s old desktop computer, I essentially plagiarized the formula to The Lightning Thief, but with a female narrator.
Although that file has been long lost along with that computer (thank goodness, it was awful), I still think about it from time to time, and the effect that reading Rick Riordan had on me. I identified as a reader long before I started reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians, but retrospectively, this moment was one of my most passionate moments as a reader. I was so inspired by a story that I wanted to capture that same kind of magic.
This passion is part of what it means to me to be a literary citizen.
Passion by itself isn’t enough, though, I’ve realized growing up. I could read by myself in my room and cry my heart out over the characters, but no one would ever know how I felt about that book if I didn’t talk to them about it. I grew up shy, and by nature, I am an introvert, but talking about books has always been something I could do. I surrounded myself with friends who shared my passion, to the point that we would play our own version of Harry Potter during recess, and I wrote pages of book recommendations for a friend in high school. I even went to the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at Borders (rest in peace, old friend) and watched fellow readers debate whether Snape was good or evil.
I was part of a community of readers and writers even before I knew what literary citizenship was, just by sharing and talking about my passion for words.
My passion has to manifest itself as action for me to be a literary citizen; action is key above all else, even if it’s a simple conversation. When I follow an author on Twitter, review them on Goodreads, recommend a book to a long distance friend (The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton — read it, trust me), discuss with classmates what we’re currently reading, I am acting as a literary citizen because I am turning my passion into support and discussion.
I am planting seeds of passion in any way I can. That is literary citizenship.