Onyx reviews: The
Testament by John Grisham
In John Grisham's earliest novels, the protagonists were underdogs who had
conflicts to resolve, often involving personal or legal jeopardy. More recently,
however, his main characters seldom seem to be in real danger. They quickly get
ahead of the game while their adversaries have to play catch-up. The heroes
cruise through the books, leaping every plot hurdle with ease.
Multibillionaire Troy Phelan produces a secret will which disinherits his
entire known family of ex-wives and bratty children moments after he has tricked
them into certifying his competency, moments before he leaps to his death.
Everything is left to a previously unknown, illegitimate daughter who has spent
the last several years as a South American missionary.
Nate O'Riley, a lawyer fresh from the latest of many addiction rehab
programs, is sent to Brazil to find the new heir. He has numerous entertaining
adventures along the way—plane wrecks, sinking boats, alcoholic relapses, a
harrowing bout with dengue fever and a religious conversion—but he locates
Rachel while lost in the vast jungle by an unbelievable stroke of luck. His
subsequent misadventures serve no more purpose than to prolong the process of
getting word back to the U.S. that Rachel has no interest in becoming the
richest woman in the world. If it becomes known that she wants to have nothing
to do with her estranged father's estate, the legacy will be divided among
Phelan's remaining children. The billionaire's lawyers realize that this huge
inheritance would destroy these would-be heirs and anyone around them, so they
defend Rachel's legacy in spite of her wishes.
Phelan and his lawyers have done such a good job of anticipating the
disinherited children that the families spend much of the novel trying to come
from behind. Even their most underhanded and devious attempts to defeat the new
testament are easily thwarted by O'Riley and his partners. There is virtually no
conflict or dramatic tension.
The real focus of the novel is Nate O'Riley and his predictable
transformation from addict and drunk to hero, which occurs without much ceremony
and to no reader's surprise. He is touched by God and becomes devoted to Rachel
after their brief encounter in the jungle. Back in the U.S., when he gets to
strut his stuff in depositions, it is clear that ten years of bingeing and abuse
have not affected his legal expertise one bit. The army of opposing lawyers
equipped with hired witnesses is no match for him.
Perhaps Grisham believes that allowing one of his characters to redeem
himself through God is venturing into cutting-edge territory. Enough so that it
is not necessary to create any other sort of conflict to drive this book. Enough
so that it is not necessary to add any depth to most of his characters. The
children are uniformly vile and lack a single redeeming trait. Nate is a nice
enough man, and readers will root for him through his misadventures, but he
never seems to be at risk of failing. It would have been more compelling if the
fight on behalf of Rachel Lane, which supposedly depends on O'Riley surviving
his demons, didn't look like it had been mostly resolved by the end of chapter
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