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The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  648 ratings  ·  148 reviews
A daughter’s astonishing memoir of pushing past fear, through life in a traveling sideshow and her mother’s illness

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
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published May 1st 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Keith Beasley-Topliffe Yes. The author teaches writing in several venues and it shows in vivid descriptions of life with the sideshow and in her reflections on how her…moreYes. The author teaches writing in several venues and it shows in vivid descriptions of life with the sideshow and in her reflections on how her understanding of that life changed (and changed her). The interweaving of her life and her mother's struggles with multiple strokes both before and after her sideshow experience casts light on both.(less)

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Apr 09, 2018 rated it liked it
I received an advance reader copy from publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux via NetGalley.

Tessa Fontaine was 30 when she was invited for a 5-month stint with America's last traveling sideshow, the World of Wonders. She started as a bally girl (someone that lures people to buy tickets for the show), then progressed to snake handling, handcuff escape, and fire eating. But her education in the sideshow arts did not end there. She performed the illusion of a 4-legged lady and what she considered her
Sonja Arlow
3.5 stars

Many years ago, my aunt married a carnival mechanic.

The marriage didn’t last long but while they were together I was given the opportunity to work at the carnival. As a 13-year-old getting unsupervised time in a carnival felt like an amazing gift even if it meant working in one of those lame Feed the Ducks booths. Each night once the place has officially closed, temp staff like myself could ride the scariest ride for as long as they wanted. I loved every second.

So, when I saw this memoi
Sep 25, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018, bookclub, memoir
This is a memoir told in alternative chapters, telling the story about the author joining the last American sideshow, the World of Wonders, and also sharing her feelings about her mother having a major stroke.

I always find 3 star reviews to be the most difficult of all. I liked it, but I didn't love it. The carnival element was interesting, but I was more intrigued by the author's relationship with her mother.

What will stay with me is her mom and her step-dad's relationship, as well as the guts
May 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
I have to admit that when I won this book in a giveaway, I was not sure if I would like it. I put off reading it, but then I opened it and I was hooked.

Tessa Fontaine runs away from her problems and joins the circus; well, not quite. Tessa becomes intrigued by the sideshows that perform as part of state and area fairs. After interviewing performers and owner's, she is invited by the owner of "World of Wonders" to join up for a season and live the life. Frankly, it is a challenge beyond what most
Jerrie (redwritinghood)
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
I received a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for my review. Two years after her mother experiences a devastating stroke and is still severely disabled, the author’s parents decide to take a trip to Italy. The author decides to spend a season with a traveling sideshow to take her mind off her grief and worry. The work is grueling and she has to be fearless to learn the acts. Fascinating look behind the scenes and at the lives of the people who work the shows. Stellar writing.
lucky little cat
Oct 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Tessa Fontaine's MFA-project valentine to the last traveling carnival sideshow covers her 150 days on the road with the show as a bona fide fire-eating geek.
Read the book for Fontaine's many candid conversations with the sideshow's veterans. If you've ever wondered what happens at the carnival after the Ferris wheel shuts down, this is your book. One of my many favorite quotations:
You want to meet a bunch of carnies? Head to Wally World after midnight when the carnival is in town. Hope they
Keith Beasley-Topliffe
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
Fascinating. Tessa Fontaine, a young woman (with an MFA in literature) joins World of Wonders, the last traveling sideshow, for their 2013 season--150 days of long hours, hard work, and performing as a bally girl (outside the show, helping lure customers inside with fire eating and such), a talker (providing a running commentary on some of the inside acts), and a performer (the headless woman, the four-legged woman, and ultimately as the electric woman). This story is interwoven with the story o ...more
Barbara (The Bibliophage)
Jan 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoirs, 2019
Originally published on

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. O
This is a beautifully written personal story about facing one's fear while going through parent's illness and joining a traveling sideshow. You may think both stories don't intertwine but they do. Ms. Fontaine goes back and back forth with her story by sharing how both worlds struggle with not just finding acceptance but how to go through their world without being "a sideshow" by other people's perception. In all this, Ms. Fontaine goes back forth with her own feelings of not being there for her ...more
Mar 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC of this book. After her mother suffers from a debilitating stroke, Tessa decides joins a traveling sideshow. The story nicely parallels her mother's story of progress with Tessa's time in the World of Wonders. I could almost smell the stench of sweat and feel the author's tired muscles as she worked tirelessly for the show. This book was a mesmerizing look into the world of freak shows and carnival life as well as a lovely story of what some of u ...more
Amy Morgan
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Thank you Edelweiss for my review copy of this book. I absolutely loved reading this story. The author presents a good balance of her life before and during her time with the sideshow. She has a great grasp on the peopke around her and really makes you feel a part of whst she was experiencing. Brave, honest and adventurous this was an excellent read!
Jun 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I just finished the best memoir I've read in years -- TheElectric Woman by Tessa Fontaine. It’s about a young woman who literally leaves the difficulties of her life behind to join the circus as a performer. She works as a snake charmer, fire eater, and ultimately as the woman who withstands the electricity in the electric chair. Half the book is her adventures with the circus and the people she meets. The other half is her reflections back on her mother who had a massive stroke and the seeming ...more
Jun 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Usually I find memoirs by white women exhausting. Their fish-out-of-water stories strike me as exploitative, both of the reader and the people they encounter on their journeys to (insert eyeroll here) self-discovery.

Tessa wasn't born into the sideshow world, and while she only lives in it for 5 months, she writes about it with honesty, humor, and heart. She wants you to believe all of it too—the sweat, tears, and snot that go into making the magic. And the way she intertwines scenes from the fa
Bonnie Brody
Apr 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
When I was a child of a certain age, my favorite book was Toby Tyler. He was a young boy who joined the circus. I thought that was the neatest thing. In 'The Electric Woman', Tessa Fontaine, a grown woman, decides to join a real carnival, specifically their side show. She tells them she is able to eat fire and perform other acts that she is unable to do. "Sideshows are where people come to see public displays of their private fears: of deformity, of disruption in the perceived gender binary, of ...more
Sep 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018
Five blazing, shooting stars for this book. I can’t say enough good things about it. Fascinating & weird & honest & human, not to mention incredibly well written. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long, long time.
Jun 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: audiobooks, memoir
This one was just okay for me. I felt like it badly needed an editor, for one, and the parts about her mother never really coalesced with the rest of the narrative. I felt like I never really connected with the author and her motivations, and I never got the feeling she was really giving an inside look at the performers she worked with in the sideshow. Often her perspective came across rather patronizing of them, like she was just collecting experiences to write about later from her safe middle- ...more
Rhonda Lomazow
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
So so good a look at Carnie life family relations.Tessa Fontaine story kept me turning the pages.#netgalley #fsg
Sep 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
So, so good. Gave me lots of feels. It was like climbing inside the author's brain (in a good way).

I got very interested in the concept of "hacking it" and why we value it so much. I seriously thought about it for days.
Shannon Dyer
Jul 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
A fascinating look at carnival life.
May 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Tessa Fontaine has a very good writing style and really makes the two story lines of her mom’s illness and her summer with the traveling side-show come alive. I don’t quite agree with how she laid out the timeline of the book - there are a few places where it seems she jumps back and forth unnecessarily in time - but it is really interesting.
May 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: amazon-reviewed
The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in mid-April.

This is the autobiography of Fontaine, a female sideshow performer who, for a total of 150 days, learns skills (such as fire-breathing, snakecharming, escaping from handcuffs, sleight of hand magic tricks, sword swallowing), faces fears, and invites risk after her mother experiences symptoms of a stroke related to brain hemorrhage.  She performs at state and county fairs as a ballyhoo girl alongside the barke
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
I really ENJOYED this book, for all the reasons most of us would: the "freak" show, the last travelling sideshow in the US, state fairs in blistering heat, scary feats of daring, snakes, knives, menacing carnies, etc. There were some great characters among her own crew. But I ADMIRE this book mainly because of Fontaine's courage in facing her fears that she's a bad daughter, a cranky and cruel person, and an inconstant help for her severely, suddenly, disabled mother. It caused me to think of my ...more
Rachel Watkins
Apr 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: arc, memoir
Tessa Fontaine is a brave woman: a snake handler, a fire breather, a daughter who is losing her mother to a massive brain injury. Her memoir of her time traveling for a season as a performer in the last traveling sideshow is more than a documentary of freak show. It is the story of a daughter coming to terms with the woman her mother was and it’s so beautifully written. Highly recommend.
Jessica Traver cashen
May 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fantastic read. Well written with some very colorful characters. I was engrossed from start to finish. This is about Teresa's mothers struggles while getting better after a stroke and about Tessa being in a Carnival. I voluntarily read and reviewed an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from Netgalley
Diane Yannick
May 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
This debut memoir was an interesting read. I once knew a young, ‘retired’ carnie couple and ever since hearing their stories I’ve been super interested in circus/carnival life. I remember at the DE State Fair they used to have freak shows (yep, that’s what they were called) but I was always too afraid to go in. I figured I might encounter an unexpected sight that would be forever etched in my memory.

What makes this book special is the way the author artfully connected two very different stories
Marybeth Taranow
Apr 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
I requested this book because I love anything related to freak shows and carnivals. This did not disappoint. This was full of self discovery, strength and healing. I will recommend this book highly and will purchasing a physical copy as well.
Jun 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I'm such a sucker for a great memoir and can't rave enough about,  The Electric Woman . Tessa Fontaine shares two death-defying stories...her own and the incredible story of her mother who defied all predictions of death for many years after suffering a series of strokes.

Many of us dream of escaping it all, but Tessa actually does this and applies for a job working with the World of Wonders, America's last traveling side show. Bravely, she tries all sorts of incredible acts within this company l
Becky Loader
Jun 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Did you ever want to run off and join the carnival? Eat fire? Handle snakes?

Nope, neither did I.

Tessa Fontaine has a dynamic mother with whom she has had a tumultuous relationship. What about that old saying that there can only be one alpha dog--one boss mare? It is the same with humans.

Tessa confronts life and change by trying out for the World of Wonder traveling sideshow. She is accepted as a member. Now, can she hack it. (Read the book: you will find out what that means.)

The chapters altern
Bob Carleson
Jan 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The trick is, There is no trick. Sage words coming from the author as she plunges into an unknowable world of a side show of all things. Why a side show we ask. The only thing comes to mind has to do with adrenaline rush and exploring a curious new world. Ms. Fontaine took us on a nervous (for me, as hollywood had me preparing for disaster at every moment) knife box, sword swallowing trip working with people who appear threatening at first. Come to find out, with the author's help, carnies are g ...more
Mark Jobs
Jan 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Loved this book! Tessa Fontaine gives you a glimpse into the rarely seen world of a traveling carnival show, while paralleling an ongoing traumatic family struggle. Gritty and glamorous, heart breaking and heart warming, funny and frightening; Fontaine takes you up and down through this memoir. What is fact and what is fiction in a world of headless women and sword swallowers? The Electric Woman is a must read.
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“The only way to do it is to do it. There is no trick.” 1 likes
“For the first time, I imagine what it would be like to have a child going off into the world, making her own life with her own experiences, and how I would feel happy for her, and excited, and also quite sad that I was no longer a necessary part of it.” 0 likes
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