Sarno's debut follows the poignant love story of music critic Matt and years-older artist Johanna. In 2012, 25 years after the breakup, Johanna's daughter calls Matt to come visit her mother, and the novel is built on Matt’s flashbacks to their vital years together. In 1980s Boston, Matt is a struggling writer facing eviction from his apartment when he runs into Johanna while he’s covering a Bob Dylan concert. With tender excitement, Matt details Johanna’s whirlwind entrance into his life, especially her worldly experiences, knowledge of art, and passion for feminist issues. A long-distance romance blooms, rich with powerful moments.
Sarno explores many heavy and formidable topics, but he does so with sensitivity and delicacy, covering weighty issues like suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other aspects of mental illness with grace. He’s skillful at depicting Matt and Johanna’s shifting relationship, characterized both by moments of transcendent connection as well as darker times—including a wrenching account of a despondent Johanna’s lowest moments. Ultimately, Matt shies from a real commitment because of unresolved trauma from his childhood. This leads to a slow, painful breakup but also later to Matt’s own healing, as he learns to face his past and open himself up in relationships.
The somewhat painful reunion a quarter century later is both moving and evocative of their earlier ups and downs, as Matt has learned to approach those he cares for with a sense of grace that the break-up was lacking. Threaded through it all, as the title suggests, is a fascination with the music of Bob Dylan and others–obsessive Matt, we learn, parses a mono edition of
Blonde on Blonde to discover “the prominence of different instruments when compared to the stereo edition.” The resulting novel, like the classic song that lends the novel its title, is a slightly rambling but heartfelt and fascinating narrative about the urgency of human connection.
Takeaway: A beautifully intimate romance that doesn't shy away from challenging topics.
Great for fans of: Hazel Hayes’s
Out of Love, Sara Goodman Confino’s She’s Up to No Good.
Production grades Cover: A Design and typography: A Illustrations: N/A Editing: A- Marketing copy: B
"Sarno writes with a fine descriptive hand…The culture and feel of past and present experiences merge with each character's perspective to create a medley of roller-coaster days that succinctly create a 'you are here' feel. …a thought-provoking, evocative love story firmly rooted in a sense of place and time."
Midwest Book Review Diane Donovan
"Well-written with deeply complex characters and many different beautiful settings,
Visions of Johanna is worth reading more than once. …I really enjoyed the discussion questions at the end of the book and feel this would be a perfect book club book. With questions that address the concepts of faith and hope to the efforts put towards the women's movement, there is a lot that can be talked about in this novel. Detailed, wonderfully written, and thought-provoking, Visions of Johanna will have readers thinking long after they put the book down."
Manhattan Book Review
Manhattan Book Review - Kristi Elizabeth
"What sets it apart from so many novels in the genre is Sarno’s tenderly honest depiction of the complexities of real-life relationships—the way the past can haunt them, the way pleasure and uncertainty can mingle in any given hour, the way a small, kind gesture or ill-chosen word can draw lovers together or shove them apart. …The novel wraps you in its embrace and doesn’t let go until the last word on the last page. Johanna is one of the more intriguing characters I’ve encountered in modern fiction, and the narration is so natural and true-seeming that readers will wonder if she’s been plucked straight from life and set on the page. …A moving, enlightening, and truly enjoyable read."
Author: Breakfast with Buddha Roland Merullo
Visions of Johanna traverses a wide expanse of territory: geographic, emotional and experiential. From the working-class streets of Revere, Massachusetts, to rural Wisconsin and the East Village—from neighborhood kids’ baseball, to feminist film festivals and Dylan concerts—from childhood tragedy to unfulfilled love and middle-aged emotional breakthroughs. It’s a highly charged, loaded book told through unflinching prose—clean, precise, never decorative—lyrical and at times poetic. I always know I’m reading good writing when I get to the end of passages and think: I wish I wrote that!—Joseph Torra, author of My Ground Trilogy
Joseph Torra, author of My Ground Trilogy - Joseph Torra
"A deeply moving and romantic tale of young people, artists and would-be bohemians struggling to find themselves and their place in the world…. Sarno’s wide-ranging novel wrestles with questions of class, family, art and the limits of ambition. It will sweep you along from the first page to the last."
—Askold Melnyczuk, author of
Ambassador of the Dead
—Askold Melnyczuk, author of Ambassador of the Dead - Askold Melnyczuk
Beautifully crafted with extraordinary depth,
Visions of Johanna is a timeless love story, a lyrical tale about the complexities of artistic ambition, and a thought-provoking, contemporary reflection on the human condition. Peter Sarno’s debut will leave you wanting for nothing more than his next novel.” —Lisa Duffy, author of My Kind of People
A gentle masterpiece!”
Susan Cheever —, author of Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, and 14 other works of fiction and non-fiction
Susan Cheever —, author of Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, an - Susan Cheever
"Sarno does a masterful job of dissecting love to its barest roots and greatest pains in his complex novel…and so well captures the signals associated with budding relationships that readers will reminisce about their own affairs at that crazy stage when they feel something happening and don’t quite know what it means or what to do.
Visions of Joanna created flash images for me of The Way We Were and Love Story – only in the way that love can look so right at one point and then suddenly face storm clouds. But those comparisons of commercial-centric, manipulated vehicles are not fair to the literary, crafty and intricate work the author provides in his narrative and in his fine writing. Maybe Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is more apropos. …This fine novel will make readers think, it will move them deeply, and challenge their senses and comprehension."
"Matt's internal contradictions direct much of the text. …Though it follows long periods of emotional repression, his eventual growth is formidable and cathartic. . . .Matt’s childhood traumas are best explored near the book’s end. . . [and] this exploration is among the reflective features used to capture profound heartache. . . .
Visions of Johanna is a somber literary coming-of-age novel in which a man confronts his repressed emotions in the midst of a tumultuous relationship."
Foreword Clarion Reviews
Foreword Clarion Reviews - Aimee Jodoin
"Treat yourself to a slice-of-life tale about two people who fall in love and change each other's lives forever...filled to the brim with nostalgia, romance, and a hearty appreciation of the arts. ...A stellar debut."
Visions of Johanna is a beautifully written literary novel about an unlikely pairing. Matt, a young, freelance music critic during the 1980’s . . . Johanna, a flamboyant feminist and artist seven years his senior. . . . Something is off about their romance. . . .Sarno keeps the mystery a secret until the book’s powerful and surprising final chapters. . . . His use of metaphors and lush language draws readers into the story. . . . Readers must be patient, allowing Matt to confront his past on his own terms. However, Sarno’s subtle approach makes the denouement that much stronger. Indeed, as the story reaches its affecting conclusion, readers may shed a tear or two before the final page is turned." — BlueInk starred review
"Taking its title from the famous song,
Visions of Johanna, Peter Sarno’s debut novel is imbued with the lyricism and dark romance of many of Dylan’s most poignant compositions. Told in the first person, Sarno writes eloquently about the struggles of balancing creative aspirations with personal relationships. The majority of the novel is set in the 1980s and Sarno evokes the era well. …Sarno writes about music and musicians with some style. A moment in which Matt watches Johanna at a Janis Ian concert is skillfully rendered. Elsewhere he writes brilliantly on art—especially when viewed from a feminist perspective. A passage interpreting Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party is particularly astute. Throughout the novel the interplay between the two leads is beautifully modulated. Any frustration felt by the reader in the characters inability to properly connect is deftly explained by the slow reveal of each character’s hidden history. Visions of Johanna is an engaging, mature and compelling debut novel which, though comparatively short, carries great emotional weight." —Kent Lane for IndieReader
In this novel, a music critic remembers a life-changing romance with a whimsical artist.
It’s the 1980s, and Matthew Dominico has just been evicted from his Boston apartment. Returning to his childhood home and old-school Italian neighborhood is the only option but far from ideal—though Matt’s father has died, his widowed mother isn’t open about anything unrelated to food. To escape the long-repressed emotions of his youth, Matt turns to his side gig as a music critic and meets a woman who will change his life. Johanna Beaumont is a fellow Bob Dylan fan and gifted visual artist who left behind her hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin—and her marriage to a dentist named Robbie—to pursue her dreams. Johanna is beautiful and free-spirited, encouraging Matt to process memories of his often tragic past, and integrating him into her bohemian life in New York City. The couple connect not only in their love for music, but in a passion for art and life as well. Johanna and Matt’s romance is deep and intense, but the distance between Boston (where he has a solid job working with medical records) and the Big Apple presents many challenges. And after Johanna finally takes a full-time job herself in the cutthroat corporate world, Matt worries that her dwindling mental health may mean the end of their affair, and a whole lot more. Sarno, an award-winning nonfiction author, literature professor, and journalist, paints an evocative portrait of New York and Boston in the ’80s, with nods to an eclectic group of musicians ranging from Dylan and Joan Jett to Debbie Gibson. The details of Matt’s backstory, which include the untimely death of a female friend when both were just teenagers, are rich and intriguing, though sometimes superfluous to the main tale of Johanna and the protagonist’s relationship. The character of Johanna has the opposite problem. Except in a few details about her past, she comes off as more of a dream girl archetype—gorgeous, wild, and unpredictable, with moods that change on a dime—than a fully realized person.
A vivid but meandering love story.