Visions of Johanna
"Johanna and Matt’s romance is deep and intense, but the distance between Boston and the Big Apple presents many challenges. . . .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 are rich and intriguing . . ."
Johanna, an artist, and Matt, a music critic, couldn’t be more different, but by a simple twist of fate, she plucks him from a crowd at a Dylan concert. What follows is a heady and intense relationship buffeted by the usual suspects that gently rocked the ‘80s. Matt’s lessons in art—as well as life—at the hands of Johanna, drive the novel into pockets of feminism and quiet revolution. All of this is tempered by deeply held traumatic secrets that torque their intimacy.
Yet it's Revere—and not Boston—that remains one of the underlying attractions in Visions of Johanna. This north shore backdrop brings Matt into full focus – a child in a city of recent immigrants, life by the ocean, the bilious flavor of the Mob are just some of the elements rendered in skillful detail. Johanna, a renegade from Wisconsin—freewheeling and hyper-energized—draws Matt out of his comfort zone and into her world.
A meditation on art and unrest, Visions of Johanna celebrates life, love, memory and the undying power of the deep connections that sustain us. The novel follows Johanna and Matt as they pursue their dreams to paint and to write. But burdening problems collide with these artistic desires and other forces conspire against them. Ultimately, the two are done in by their inability to share aspects of their past they believe they must hide from.
The novel travels through time and social unrest to the final moment hinted at in the prologue. Within this book's pages, tragedies haunt, acts of moral goodness manifest themselves, and benevolence reigns with a finality that absolves all.
from Publishers Weekly
A beautifully intimate romance that doesn't shy away from challenging topics.
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.
Great for fans of: Hazel Hayes’s Out of Love, Sara Goodman Confino’s She’s Up to No Good.
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What’s the book’s first line?
“Johanna named her only child Faith, just about the time she started to lose hers and the life she’d always dreamt of had begun to slip away.”
What’s the book about? Give us the “pitch”.
The novel explores and navigates the complexities of a relationship between two people pursuing different fields of art—a music critic and a visual artist. Matt and Johanna meet, love, and try to stay connected but are driven apart by darkness within. Those demons drive the book—how does anyone reconcile tragedy with joy? Can we ever rid ourselves of the hovering presence of trauma and loss?
What inspired you to write the book? A particular person? An event?
The book was inspired by a confluence of four main impetuses I guess. I read a novel about a younger man and an older female artist and it hadn’t rung true somehow. And— with a certain level of arrogance—me, a person who never published a full length book thought, I knew a talented and brave artist, I should be able to share the experience of what that artistic life was like more effectively.
And, while I was ruminating on the idea, I later thought, Well Peter, why didn’t that relationship work out?
Independent of this, over the years, I had tried several times to write a story about a dear friend who tragically lost her life while only sixteen-years-old. And I eventually finished two short stories based on her. She had been hit by a drunk driver, abandoned on the side of the road, and found dead by her older sister who went out looking for her after she hadn’t returned home from a trip to the neighborhood convenience store. I was absolutely numb for weeks and longer. Years later, only two main images of Mary Ann remained: one of her dressed in a stylish suede leather fringe jacket of the era with her sparkling brown eyes and luminous smile on the Friday she left for that weekend trip to Maine—the one I saw. And the other: her lying by the side of the road, alone, waiting for her sister to find her—the one I could only imagine, yet could never rid myself of.
I didn’t know how to deal with that pain. There were really no such things as a grief counselors in those days and a man (even though I was only sixteen myself)—especially in my neighborhood was expected to suck it up. It wasn’t until I started writing the novel that I understood that these events might be interconnected. That perhaps one of the reasons my relationship with the artist (and another significant one that occurred prior to that) didn’t work out had something to do with this traumatic event.
Finally I wondered, Why is music so damn important to you?
What’s the main reason someone should really read this book?
My sincere hope is that there will be several reasons. But, it’s a book for those who’ve loved and lost through youthful misdirection and also for those who have faith in the power of time to guide us to a place we’re meant to be. It also shines some light on the challenges women (and children) faced—and, unfortunately, those they continue to confront to this day.
What’s the most distinctive thing about the main character? Who-real or fictional-would you say the character reminds you of?
Some people would argue that Matt, and not the title character, ends up being the main character. But I still believe that you could make a case for Johanna being the protagonist. The most remarkable thing about her is her courage and steadfast belief in her artistic visions. But, if readers feel Matt is the main character, then the most striking thing about him is his struggle to reconcile the then and now concept of being a man and his attempts to emerge from the traditional notion of masculinity and to accept emotional sensibilities and actions.
If they made your book into a movie, who would you like to see play the main character(s)?
Like me, they’re all probably too old now, but this is a fun exercise. Mary-Louise Parker and Tobey Maguire as Johanna and Matt. Tim Potter as Orlando, Rachel McAdams as Aubrey, and a young Mary Stuart Masterson as Heather.
When did you first decide to become an author?
Perhaps earlier, but in the 6th grade Sister Mary Ellen (who played touch football with us in the schoolyard during recess) encouraged us to write a story in Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger” vein and I remember her liking mine and encouraging me.
Is this the first book you’ve written?
I’ve written several short stories, a linked collection of stories, and a few other novels, but this is the first full-length book of mine that has actually been published.
What do you do for work when you’re not writing?
I have a small Indie publishing house that has released close to fifty other titles—none of which are mine—during the past ten plus years. Another labor of love was teaching literature and memoir courses at University of Massachusetts. But, the bills mostly get paid these days by me sometimes running data and telecom cables in office ceilings or trekking to client sites and providing computer network support.
How much time do you generally spend on your writing?
Not enough unfortunately. On average, maybe 6 to 10 hours a week if I’m lucky. If I have an existing project that made it through that first horrible draft stage, usually much more time than that per week is devoted to it.
What’s the best and the hardest part of being an indie?
Not being taken seriously. A lack of affirmation. I’ve known—and know—artists of all genres who don’t need that. But I do think it helps.
What’s a great piece of advice that you can share with fellow indie authors?
I’m not sure I can distill these recommendations down to one thing. I’ve read dozens of books and magazine articles on craft and I’m sure at least some aspect of each and every one of them has proven helpful. Still, I don’t think they top what novelist and short story writer Ivan Gold told a handful of us green BU students when I went back to grad school (the first of a couple of times) in the early ’80s, “Stay away from negative people.”
(I have an encouraging letter that Professor Gold wrote me after I’d dropped out the following semester; it’s stashed between the pages of a copy of his first novel somewhere in my cellar.)
If I were able to heed his advice, I think I might have moved that much further along, much more quickly. After all, I’m 68 years old and Visions of Johanna is the first full-length book that I’ve published. It’s important for authors to carve out their own territory, to create their own protective bunkers, and part of the armor necessary is keeping the negative folks away—well-meaning friends and foes alike. I don’t want to imply that an aspiring author should become Pollyannaish about it. Honest, sincere criticism as well as competent professional editors are mandatory. But there are too many people willing to advise creative types to simply give up.
The other thing I discovered is that pain is important. Not “woe is me doesn’t my life (or my character’s life) suck” pain; but there remains a need to pursue it in your art—no matter how vulnerable that ultimately might make you feel.
Would you go traditional if a publisher came calling? If so, why?
To say I wouldn’t be flattered would be an outright lie. But I don’t fit the current publishing demographic (no matter what the book’s subject matter) and the chances of that happening seem slim and none. Early on, there was some minor interest in Visions of Johanna from a couple of small Indie houses, but in the end, I thought I might be able to do a better job and have more control. I realize that decision involved a certain amount of hubris.
Is there something in particular that motivates you (fame? fortune?)
In a perfect world, I’d love to be able to garner empathetic readers one at a time. Those who might say, Gee I know how that character feels, or why a person acted a certain way. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to entertain that person, allow them to feel something during our shared journey. Asking someone to invest several hours of his or her time in your book, is not an insignificant request. I understand this commitment and remain grateful and honored when a person is willing to take that leap of faith.
Which writer, living or dead, do you most admire?
This is a tough—if not an impossible—question to answer, which I’m sure many authors have already said to you in the past. So I’ll cheat and name two—one living and one dead—and then come to regret I hadn’t mentioned dozens of others.
Ann Beattie because she accurately tapped into the isolation, the disconnect I—and many others—felt in the ’70s. And Andre Dubus Jr because of the pathos he was able to express in his short stories and novellas—long before the tragedies that eventually encompassed his own life.
Which book do you wish you could have written?
Another very difficult choice. This pick changes at least several times per week. So for today I’ll say Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo. There are no car chases, no murders. It’s simply a slice of life tale of working class people who sometimes act heroically, mostly accept each other’s frailties, and usually try to face each new day with courage, resolve, and humor.
Peter Sarno taught literature and memoir courses at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and has published essays, reviews, and short stories. While a graduate student at UMass, he won the Donald E Cookson prize in nonfiction. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Music World magazine, Sweet Potato, Gannet newspapers, Gatehouse Media, and other outlets. Visions of Johanna is his first published novel.
Author of Breakfast with Buddha
"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."
Midwest Book Review
by Diane Donovan
"Visions of Johanna is a novel of a relationship between two creative spirits, an artist and a music critic, whose chance meeting at a concert evolves into a relationship that changes them both.
Sarno writes with a fine descriptive hand that explores and processes the emotions of Matt and his increasing, unexpected involvement with Johanna: "I wasn't sure why I'd raised the subject. It could've been because Johanna had been facing elsewhere and sketching—fully engaged in an activity she loved—and no one was around. Perhaps it was because of a momentary sense of security—although the wrath from the incoming tide had brought forth splashing waves with an ever-increasing fury, causing the seagulls to abandon their competition and take off. Still, amid that turmoil, being with Johanna allowed a sort of calm to sneak its way inside me—a sensation I hadn't experienced in some time, and certainly not whenever I stood near the shore."
Akin to life's ebbs and flows, the culture and feel of past and present East Coast experiences merge with each character's perspective to create a medley of roller-coaster days that succinctly create a 'you are here' feel: "Comfortable" wasn't the correct term. "Contented" or "at ease" made us sound like old fogies. But with Johanna—in between her roller coaster detours—I had encountered a type of stillness, a serenity I guess I hadn't known I was capable of, and if I ever had been, it had been too long ago to remember."
…While it deserves a place in any library strong in novels about relationship evolution, Visions of Johanna also ideally will be selected as a foundation guide for book clubs looking for discussions of feminism, relationships, and life-changing events and choices that bring unexpected results to those who navigate their stormy waters."
"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…"
"Peter Sarno's Visions of Johanna is a beautifully written literary novel about an unlikely pairing.
Matt, the story's first-person narrator, is a young, freelance music critic during the 1980's. His life is changed when Johanna, a flamboyant feminist and artist seven years his senior, picks him out at a Bob Dylan concert and they fall in love.
But something is off about their romance. Matt eloquently details the concerts they attend; the art galleries and museums they visit, and so on. But he has little curiosity about Johanna's early life and rarely speaks about his own. Nor does he reveal his hang-ups or explain why he's hesitant to leave his financially tenuous life in Boston to live with Johanna in New York. Sarno keeps the mystery behind Matt's detachment a secret until the book's powerful and surprising final chapters.
The author skillfully portrays Matt, who isn't clueless about his problems although he can't address them directly or share them. 'It was as if certain neurotransmitters…were blocked. Then—like a school crossing guard––my subconscious stepped in front of me and waved a massive stop sign.'
His use of metaphors and lush language draws readers into the story. For example, Matt likens his breakup with Johanna to cleaning up after a Macy's Thanksgiving parade. 'Sure, there had been several colorful floats, bright music and gigantic helium-filled Disney-character balloons—even a visit from Santa. But the once-glittering confetti—now stained and soiled—along with the empty plastic cups and Popsicle sticks were all that survived.'
Some of Matt's references may confound younger readers unfamiliar with the era. (For example, he compares his first time on horseback to the scene from the opening credits of The Lone Ranger.) And all 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."
by Kent Lane
"An aspiring music journalist and a talented artist meet by chance at a Bob Dylan concert and though their relationship blooms, each is holding something back which causes them to eventually drift apart.
It's the 1980s and Bob Dylan is midway through his contentious “Gospel” tour. Matt Dominico, the music critic for Boston's Real Paper, has been sent to review the show. Outside the venue he runs into Johanna, an artist, who is optimistically handing a security guard one of her paintings in the hope that it will reach Dylan himself. Matt's intrigued by the free-spirited artist and they arrange to meet after the concert. A romance begins but it initially seems one-sided as Johanna is not prepared to fully commit to the relationship. Driven by the persistence of Dominico they begin the slow waltz of a love affair conducted, mostly, at a distance as they each live in different cities. As Matt and Johanna begin to gain more success in their chosen careers their lives drift apart, neither realizing that sharing the secrets they are hiding from each other could have been the glue that kept them together.
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. There is enough period detail included to conjure a time and a place without the fetishization of an analogue era that often overloads books set in the recent past. Unsurprisingly Visions of Johanna is filled with musical references and 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.
Peter Sarno's Visions of Johanna is an engaging, mature and compelling debut novel which, though comparatively short, carries great emotional weight."
author of My Ground Trilogy
"Peter Sarno's novel 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 am reading good writing when I get to the end of passages and think: I wish I wrote that!"
author of My Kind of People
"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."
author of Louisa May Alcott
A Personal Biography,
"A gentle masterpiece!"
Ambassador of the Dead
"Against a backdrop of fin-de-siecle art, music and film as these played out in Greenwich Village and Boston, Sarno shapes a deeply moving and romantic tale of young people, artists and would-be bohemians struggling to find themselves and their place in the world. Here are the lost record stores of another era, alongside Judy Chicago, Debbie Harry, El Norte, the Bottom Line and Kenmore Square’s infamous Rat. Here too is youth with all its glorious aspirations confronting the harsh asperities of daily life. 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."
Settings & Soundtracks . . .
(to be updated periodically)
Nod Brook - Avon, Connecticut
Unlike Matt, (the narrator of Visions of Johanna), the first winter I moved into my Newbury Street apartment, I was lonely with a capital "L'. The hip crowd seemed to be in vibrant and constant movement all around me. Isolated, I found myself on another planet—more often than not, the cold keys of my battered upright piano my only company.
One month I was forced to sell my high school ring to help pay the rent. I knew my parents would've been more than willing to bail me out, but I was convinced I had something to prove. What the point was then, I can't remember. I bought used copies of Karla Bonoff's and Steve Forbert's debut albums from New England Music City's Boylston Street shop around the corner and proceeded to play those vinyl records until the grooves bled white. There was something about their music and lyrics that connected with me during that dismal frigid season—and still does so to this day.
On the other hand . . .
Before I was a teenager, I had tagged along to concerts with older friends and relatives. Then—and later—I managed to see some of the greatest acts of the time James Brown, Clapton, The Doors, Dead, Tina Turner, Dylan—the list goes on and on. By accident, I ended up at my first Debbie Gibson concert. Early on, friends and other critics outright dismissed her as "just another teen girl act" or denigrated her work as simply that of "a bubble gum pop princess"—as if those talents alone might not be worthy enough in themselves.
In the movie Music & Lyrics, Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant's character) says, "You can take all the novels in the world, and not one of them will make you feel as good as quickly as a pop song." It's hard to disagree with that sentiment.
Gibson was so much different than some of the other artists that record labels were packaging at the time. She'd paid her dues—at 15 sneaking in the back door of disco and gay dance clubs accompanied by her mother to promote her single "Only in My Dreams", dressing the way she wanted (conservative)—including what would become her trademark porkpie hats—and writing all of her own songs. (It's said she turned in dozens of tunes to Atlantic even before she recorded her first album.)
I think one of the the first things that struck me about her in that live performance was "sincerity" coupled with the unadulterated glee and joy that she—along with the other members of her band—showed. This might not be a huge thing to folks today. (On second thought, perhaps it would be.) But this was the jaded Reagan-Wall Street-Gordon Gecko-"Greed is Good" era.
And the girl was certainly talented—playing piano and not lip syncing. Her mother told the story of coming home from work and discovering Debbie with her own cassette recorder—along with those from two of her sisters placed on their ironing board so that she could add multi-tracks to a new song she'd written. This caused Mrs. Gibson to seek help from a relative to help fund the construction of a recording studio in their garage.
Gibson would later go on to star in theatre productions of: Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast, Cabaret, Grease and others. My fellow writer and critic friends continued to diss me when I sung Debbie's praises. Though I did feel my enthusiasm got somewhat validated after the success of "Foolish Beat" when at 17, Gibson became the youngest person to produce, write, and perform a Number One song on the Billboard charts. In 2020, some thirty years later, that record still stood.
For more evidence of Gibson's professionalism check out the videos from 1991's Rock in Rio when at 104 degrees one of her dancers collapses from the heat, and she not only continues the set but knocks them dead with "This So Called Miracle" and other tunes.
Debbie Gibson never received the credit that was due her. It didn't help that she was a woman in what was very much a man's world at the time.
(You can tell it's the late '80s/early '90s. Record producers then couldn't seem to find a sax solo they didn't like :) )
And speaking of underappreciated talents...
Blacklisted and harassed simply because she sometimes made the "wrong people" uncomfortable, Janis Ian persists….
"The novel wraps you in its embrace and doesn’t let go until the last word on the last page."
"Sarno writes with a fine descriptive hand."
-Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review
"Sarno's debut follows the poignant love story of music critic Matt and years-older artist Johanna. A long-distance romance blooms, rich with powerful moments."
-Publishers Weekly's BookLife
"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."
—Kristi Elizabeth, Manhattan Book Review
Copies of Visions of Johanna are provided with 20 discussion questions to help facilitate conversations with book groups.
If you would like to download an Adobe pdf version of these questions, please click on the link below.
BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION QUESTIONS