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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 4.

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