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.