The threat of mortality has a peculiar way of amplifying a person’s regrets. The Electric Woman, an honest and emotionally vulnerable memoir by Tessa Fontaine, chronicles the author’s relationship with her mother, who suffered a massive stroke that left her a shadow of her former self.
Inspired by her mother’s lust for life, Fontaine decides to challenge herself and conquer her fears. She says of her mother, “She’s a yes person, a woman of adventure. When I begin to doubt that I can pull this off, I stop and think of her.” On a whim, the author accepts an invitation to join a traveling circus. Although she essentially bluffs her way into a job, Fontaine quickly finds herself fully immersed in the rag-tag carnival lifestyle. She is drawn to this world of illusions and the carnival workers’ ability to seamlessly transform onstage. Fontaine takes up the acts of escape artist, snake charmer and “Electric Woman,” an act during which she lights bulbs with her tongue.
Fontaine partially frames her memoir as an anthropological investigation. She is a stranger in a strange land, observing the various characters that comprise the circus. Yet despite her misgivings, she finds a genuine camaraderie with her carnival co-workers. Throughout the circus narrative, Fontaine soberly recounts hospital visits with her mother in the Bay Area, her obvious love for her mother permeating each interaction like perfume.
In this memoir that seamlessly balances grief, loss and wild-eyed determination, Fontaine makes a compelling case for using fear as an unexpected gift.