Tessa Fontaine runs away to join a circus sideshow after graduate school. It’s dream fulfillment, and a chance to escape the reality of her dramatically ill mother. While many daughters would refuse to leave their mother’s side, Fontaine has a more complicated relationship with her parents. And she doesn’t quite know where she fits in their world, or even her own.
Fontaine tells us about these parallel and yet divergent stories in alternating chapters. One is her present tense of the sideshow. Another is the recent past of her mother’s massive stroke and subsequent journeys. Occasionally she throws in a chapter with childhood stories to illuminate her familial relationships. The shifting topics balance the intensity of each trajectory.
Joining a sideshow without a specific act means you have to learn *everything* from scratch. Tess starts with snake wrangling, which scares the bejesus out of her. She’s also a fire eater, because of minor previous training in that. Every member of the show is also part of the crew, so they must secure the show every night. Plus put it up and break it down at the end of each fair. The experience is both physically grueling and emotionally taxing.
Fontaine intends to stay just one season, but many of her sideshow cohorts have been at this for a decade or more. Saying they’re a colorful crew is a understatement. Exploring the various personalities and relationships is fascinating.
In between all of this melodrama, a personal drama is unfolding in Fontaine’s life. Her mother had a hemorrhagic stroke, which has both disabled her brain’s functions and refused to completely abate. Fontaine’s stepfather is the primary caregiver, who doesn’t seem to expect much of the two adult children. As Fontaine puts it, she’s both distanced from her mother’s situation and obsessed with it. Whenever she has a moment, it’s clear she’s thinking about how her mother is doing.
As a daughter, I related to Fontaine’s relationship with her mother. Not every daughter will, but I had a similarly complex relationship with my mom. And she had several strokes at the end of her life. At the time, I thought obsessively about her status. Was she eating today? How much could she talk? Were her caregivers on top of their game? Fontaine illustrates the tension she (and I) felt.
But I certainly didn’t join a sideshow! Reading those portions of The Electric Woman was like escaping my humdrum life. The descriptions captured a bold mix of fear, restlessness, and sweaty costumes.
Fontaine is a skilled writer who knows just how to weave a story. She doesn’t linger in the depressing moments, and isn’t afraid to make herself look a little odd. If you like memoirs about relationships, with a lot of quirky stuff thrown in for good measure, this is for you.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the author for a digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.