Side Effects May Vary

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Side Effects May Vary Book Poster Image
Mean girl with cancer matures in complicated romance.

Parents say

No reviews yetAdd your rating

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 5 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will learn something about the side effects of chemotherapy and a little about ballet and dancing en pointe.

Positive Messages

Love is scary, because being loved by someone gives you power over him or her. True love conquers all, even a mean girl.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Protagonists Alice and Harvey, who take turns narrating the story, are juniors in high school and indulge in such classic teen hijinks as sneaking beer and cutting school. Harvey is essentially a good kid who encourages Alice to do the right thing, but he's far too much of an enabling doormat to be a truly good role model. Alice is a straight-up mean girl who humiliates, bullies, or uses everyone. Not even a cancer diagnosis is enough to make her a sympathetic character. Harvey's mother and Alice's parents are involved and engaged with their kids, showing responsible adult behavior and loving guidance without being overbearing.


Alice punches a bully in the nose and draws blood. A coppery taste from bleeding gums is mentioned. A homophobic bully is in turn bullied via public humiliation.


There are about a dozen scenes of kissing and light making out, with the description limited to mentioning the kisses' locations (mostly on the lips, with a few instances of neck and shoulders) and intensity. Several make-out sessions almost lead to sex, but something always puts a stop to it; the brief descriptions stay above the waist. Harvey and Alice have sex once, but it's not described; they use a condom. A minor classmate character has a pregnancy scare. Several descriptions of bras.


Teens frequently use swear words, including "f--k" and its variations, "s--t," and "ass" with variations such as "smartass" and "a--hole." Other strong language they use occasionally includes "crap," "sucked," "chickens--t," "bulls--t," "pissed," "turd," "bitch," and "damn." "Boobs" occurs once. The backseat of a bike is referred to as the "bitch seat." Rare instances of name-calling include "pansy," "whore," and "faggot." Neither Harvey's mother nor Alice's parents censor their language in front of their kids, and they're heard swearing a couple times. 


Harvey's Geo is mentioned several times. Other products mentioned once or twice include Muzak, Range Rover, Oreo, Lifetime, Tramadol, Adderall, Jack and Coke, Sprite, and Jetta.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens matter-of-factly sneak beer on several occasions but don't seem to particularly enjoy it. Harvey drinks a Jack and Coke at a bar but also drinks water and soda there. A teen describes another as "plastered" at a party. Adults drink wine with dinner and when socializing. Adults at a party smell of cigars and beer. Teens assume that everyone in high school has smoked pot at least once. How to make an apple bong is described without specifics, and Alice and Harvey smoke from it what she thinks is marijuana but turns out to be pine-flavored tobacco. There's speculation about snorting Adderall. Tramadol is mentioned once. Since Alice is a cancer patient, she takes painkillers, some of which she describes as the "good stuff:"  After taking some, she drifts in and out of consciousness.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Side Effects May Vary is a teen romance involving a girl who's so mean that even a cancer diagnosis doesn't garner her any sympathy from the reader. Although true love and forgiveness conquer all, they wait until the last minute to do so, and most of the events serve as a catalog of what not to do. The typical teens use a lot of strong language, most frequently "f--k," "s--t," and "ass." They also sneak beer and smoke what they think is marijuana but turns out to be tobacco. Kissing and making out above the waist occur frequently but without descriptive detail.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say

There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

Teen, 13 years old Written byrockstarreader123 February 17, 2016

Side Effects May Vary: Is it Any Good?

I think this book is another on the bandwagon of the new popular cancer theme. The plot could be interesting if done properly, but the writing was quite boring.... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byokokokok May 18, 2020

Side Effects May Very

Side Effects May Vary is promoted as a teen going through her bucket list after she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and, certain she will die, she doesn’t wo... Continue reading

What's the story?

Alice and Harvey, high school juniors, have been in love forever, which scares Alice, who tries her best to push Harvey away. After she's diagnosed with cancer, she continues to push him and everyone else away, even while she uses him to complete her "bucket list." Harvey's patience wears thin, and when Alice miraculously goes into remission, it might be too late to salvage the one relationship she needs the most.

Is it any good?

In SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY, first-time author Julie Murphy presents a complicated, sophisticated teen romance between high-school juniors Alice and Harvey. Teens will find the characters believable and enjoy following their relationship as it matures along with Alice and Harvey themselves. Each character's inability to choose the better path, even though they all fully recognize their own weaknesses, can sometimes be frustrating. It keeps Alice, in particular, from being truly relatable, as she consistently hurts those around her.

Harvey and Alice take turns narrating the story, which gives a refreshing and balanced perspective to events. But they also go back and forth in time somewhat unevenly. Even though the chapters are labeled "Then" and "Now" at the beginning, it's sometimes hard to follow or to reconstruct the time line of events. The writing's solid and mercifully devoid of schlock but lacks any kind of unique spark to elevate the novel above a genre piece.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why romances are so popular. Do you think they help us learn about relationships, or do they create unrealistic expectations?

  • Do you know anyone who's had chemotherapy? Was it different for them than it was for Alice? How realistic is the story in showing Alice's experience?

  • Alice plots to publicly humiliate a bully as revenge. What other, better strategies are there for dealing with bullies?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories about high-school and teen romance

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate