‘Karen Havelin’s Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is a life told in reverse and a subversion of what we expect from stories of illness. Having been diagnosed with endometriosis in her twenties, we follow Laura Fjellstad in her struggle to live a normal life across New York, Paris and Oslo, fueled by her belief that to survive her chronic illness she must be completely self-reliant.
Flowing backwards from 2016 to 1995, we meet Laura’s younger selves: her healthier selves. Laura as a daughter, a figure skater, a lover, and a mother – finally leading a life her own teenage self would be in awe of.’
Laura struggles massively with endometriosis, an often painful disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside the uterus. We first meet her while she is in the middle of a gynecology exam, discussing her two year old daughter and her recent divorce.
The book then traces Laura’s story backwards, from her divorce from Nick, back through her decision and struggles to conceive, back to moving to New York, relationship break-downs, on to her diagnoses, and first discovering she is ill.
What I Liked
-It grabbed my interest from the very first line : ‘For years, I’ve considered it an established fact that the female body is a pain in the ass.’ It made me smile, and nod and say ‘hell yeah!’ and hooked me. It’s rare that you encounter an opening line that sums up the entire book, but Karen Havelin manages to do just that.
-It was honest. Havelin doesn’t hold back on the gritty details involved in Laura’s illness. This book is, first and foremost, a book that chronicles a life lived with a chronic illness, one that isn’t immediately visible, and the struggles, mental and physical, that go with that. Laura often feels extreme, debilitating pain, pain that is often belittled by her friends and family. What I found so honest about this is how realistic it is. Illnesses that aren’t immediately evident can often be almost dismissed by those not suffering. I thought this portrayal was very real, and very raw, and I commend the author for it.
-The characters. Especially Laura, the main character. The story is told from her first person perspective, so we know how she feels at all times. She is not a heroine, she is a normal woman, dealing with her illness as best she can. She verbalises her struggles, and how she finds it hard to cope, but she is not a negative person despite this – she tries hard to keep a positive outlook – through her daughter, her relationships, and her skating. The other characters are also well written, again due to how realistic their emotions are. Her husband, Nick, tries to be supportive but feels he comes third to her, after their daughter and her illness. It’s a theme that runs through most of the supporting characters in the book – while the try to be supportive and sympathetic to Laura while she suffers with her pain, you can tell that a lot of the time they almost wish she’d just grin and bear it and move past it. It’s something that she faces a lot, both personally and with her family and friends.
-I could relate to this book so much. I have PCOS and anxiety, and while I am in no way trying to compare these to the pain a woman with endometriosis suffers, they are still afflictions that can hugely affect your life, but that aren’t visible like many illnesses, and as such, are almost disregarded. I have seen how people, even family, can tire of how these things can affect day to day life, and how they can prevent you from doing things. I’ve personally experienced the exasperation and eye rolls from someone when you try to explain that, though you may look perfectly fine on the outside, you cannot physically or mentally make yourself do something that seems perfectly simple. Again, not the same as in this book, but similar. I could relate so much to how Laura felt while reading this.
What I Didn’t Like
-The way the timeline was written. This isn’t really a critiscm of the book itself, just a case of personal taste. The book’s timeline is reversed, with the most recent events happening at the beginning of the book. Personally, I prefer books that follow a chronological timeline.
-I would have liked the chapters / sections to be a little bit longer, and more in depth. I would have liked to get to know the characters a bit better, and to see the relationships in more detail. I don’t know that wanting more of a story is completely negative, so as something I didn’t like, it’s still a compliment to the book!
Overall, I did enjoy this book. I can see why it might not be for everybody because it does focus on illness, one specific to women, with the rest of the content as a background story. I would, however, recommend it to anyone who suffers, or knows someone who suffers, from such an illness, or just anyone looking for something a little bit different to read.
About the author
Karen Havelin is a writer and translator from Bergen, Norway. She attended Skrivekunst-akademiet i Hordaland, has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Bergen and University of Paris Sorbonne and an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is her first novel.
I’d like to thank Dead Ink Books (@DeadInkBooks) for my copy of the novel, sent in exchange for a fair and honest review. The paperback version of the book is published on the 30th May 2019.