Summary and book reviews of The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine

The Electric Woman

A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts

by Tessa Fontaine

The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine X
The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine
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  • Published:
    May 2018, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

Tessa Fontaine's astonishing memoir of pushing past fear, The Electric Woman, follows the author on a life-affirming journey of loss and self-discovery - through her time on the road with the last traveling American sideshow and her relationship with an adventurous, spirited mother.

Turns out, one lesson applies to living through illness, keeping the show on the road, letting go of the person you love most, and eating fire:

The trick is there is no trick.
You eat fire by eating fire.

Two journeys - a daughter's and a mother's - bear witness to this lesson in The Electric Woman.

For three years Tessa Fontaine lived in a constant state of emergency as her mother battled stroke after stroke. But hospitals, wheelchairs, and loss of language couldn't hold back such a woman; she and her husband would see Italy together, come what may. Thus Fontaine became free to follow her own piper, a literal giant inviting her to "come play" in the World of Wonders, America's last traveling sideshow. How could she resist?

Transformed into an escape artist, a snake charmer, and a high-voltage Electra, Fontaine witnessed the marvels of carnival life: intense camaraderie and heartbreak, the guilty thrill of hard-earned cash exchanged for a peek into the impossible, and, most marvelous of all, the stories carnival folks tell about themselves. Through these, Fontaine trained her body to ignore fear and learned how to keep her heart open in the face of loss.

A story for anyone who has ever imagined running away with the circus, wanted to be someone else, or wanted a loved one to live forever, The Electric Woman is ultimately about death-defying acts of all kinds, especially that ever constant: good old-fashioned unconditional love.

THE ARCHITECTURE OF A WAVE

One day after the stroke
October 2010

Her arms were tucked against her sides. She had been arranged.

"Prepare yourself," my stepdad, Davy, whispered into my hair when he hugged me outside her hospital room. I'd just arrived from across the country after a night of emergency phone calls. I was not prepared. My mom was in a hospital bed, covered in machines. There were remnants of fluid, blood and yellow secretions, dried all along her head. A ventilator taped across her mouth pulled her skin taut.

I started to whisper something to Davy, but he stopped me. "She can't hear you," he said. "She won't wake up."

"Until when?" I asked.

He let out a sigh that caught in his throat halfway, the air turning into a sob that turned into a cough that turned into silence. We stood beside one another, not touching.

She was in an induced coma. They had filled her with barbiturates to knock her out. That's what a nurse told me, when I asked, after being in the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How did The Electric Woman change your perception of the human body and mind? In their simultaneous journeys, what do Teresa and Tessa show us about the nature of death-defying acts?
  2. Tessa describes the anguish she experienced because of her parents' divorce and the differing truths her parents told her over the years. She also examines the "allergy" she developed to her mother's love. How does her relationship with her mother compare to your experience with your own parents? How does the love between parents and their children evolve over the course of a lifetime? What events—large or small—in the life of your family have significantly altered the way you relate to one another? What experiences have made you rethink ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The memoir is at its best when Fontaine narrates the far-from-glamorous life at the sideshow. The hours are long and the work is difficult and seems unending; not only must the crew perform non-stop for many hours at a time, they're also responsible for taking down the equipment and packing it up for transport to the next fair. The entertaining stories of life on the road are peppered with sometimes funny, sometimes nerve-wracking vignettes, as well as descriptions of the type of eclectic personalities one would expect to encounter at a sideshow. While the sections that discuss the author's childhood and interactions with her mother are carefully woven into the text, they feel a bit forced.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (703 words).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A sometimes-engrossing but overlong memoir about carnival life and family bonds.

Booklist
Fascinating and heartfelt, Fontaine's memoir brushes with death but, more important, finds life and light in unexpected places, giving value to otherness in an unpredictable world.

Library Journal
As exciting as the snake handling, card tricks, and 'secret rituals' of the carnival's insides are, it is the grinding journey of mom-grief that will resonate with readers ... Take a walk on the wild side, why dontcha?

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Fascinating ... This remarkable, beautifully written memoir explores the depth of mother-daughter love and the courageous acts of overcoming fear and accepting change.

Author Blurb Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire
In a word: wow...Her writing hooked and hypnotized me from page one. I had to read just one more chapter, just one more until I reached the end of her extraordinary memoir, dismayed that it was over but so grateful for the unforgettable ride.

Author Blurb Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted
This is a memoir like no other. One in which reinvention means starting out as a heartbroken girl and becoming a fire eater, a snake charmer, an escape artist, an electric woman. These are not metaphors, and yet again they are: expertly developed, sustained, and revealed in intensifying and sometimes terrifying complexity, as Tessa Fontaine enters, embraces, and finally allows herself to be transformed by the carnival's World of Wonders and the unforgettable cast of characters who calls the side show home.

Author Blurb Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan
Somewhere between knives and fire beats the heart of a young woman daring herself to live...There are so many ways to bring ourselves back to life. So many people along the way who become our secular guardian angels. This story is a breathtaking, fire-eating, heart-stopping, death-defying thrill.

Author Blurb George Hodgman, author of Bettyville
In The Electric Woman, Tessa Fontaine is an escape artist determined to detonate the grim reality of mere existence, taking us on the most original journey I can remember in a recent memoir. As she moves through guises and adventures, she learns how to become the woman her mother loves and the person she didn't think she could be: her own marvelous self.

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Beyond the Book

World of Wonders

In her memoir, The Electric Woman, Tess Fontaine recounts her experiences working for a five-month long season with World of Wonders, the last traditional traveling sideshow in the United States.

As the name implies, sideshows are smaller acts that are part of a larger fair or circus. According to the International Independent Showmen's Museum, sideshows in the United States had their origins in the Chicago World Fair of 1893. Smaller permanent fairs, annual state fairs and traveling shows emerged after the World Fair closed, and sideshows were part of the offerings from the start. At one time, hundreds toured the country.

Sideshows have always featured performers who had unusual physical talents, such as contortionists or those who ...

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