Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Testament by John Grisham

The Testament is a sort of departure for John Grisham. The Mississippi born author, who became a bestseller with his second novel, has been experimenting with his last few releases. Instead of the stock legal thrillers for which he is known, Grisham has worked to provide readers with a bit of humor and adventure. The Testament is probably the most successful of those experimental novels.

The story begins with Troy Phelan, a communications billionaire with a mess of a private life. Phelan has amassed a fortune worth $11 billion in his lifetime, but he has no one to whom he wants to leave the money. He has three ex-wives and six children, and none of them are worth the money, in his mind. So Phelan sets up a trick, which is where the book begins.

He has each family of children bring in a psychiatrist. The panel examines Phelan and declares him to be competent. Phelan signs a will in front of everyone and then has them leave with the impression that the will divides the money evenly between the six children. Instead as they are leaving, Phelan pulls out a handwritten holographic will and leaves them very little. Then he jumps to his death.

The mystery will leaves a small sum to each of the six children and the rest of the fortune to Rachel Lane, who is an illegitimate child. No one knew of Rachel before the will, and Phelan left with only a clue about how to find her. She is a missionary in the Pantanal, a large swamp in the area bordering Brazil and Bolivia. She is without communication with the world, and Phelan leaves it to his lawyers to find her and give her the money.

And so the story begins. Josh Stafford, who is the primary attorney for the Phelan business matters, sends one of his attorneys, just out of rehab and with problems of his own, to the Pantanal to track Rachel down. She is living with a group of natives called Ipicas, but the firm knows little about how to find her.

Nate, the attorney charged with the location of Rachel Lane, finds himself on a whirlwind adventure, when he heads Brazil to find Rachel. First he tries to fly a small plane over the swamp to locate a settlement of the Indians, but the plane crashes in a huge storm, and he ends up deserted on a small farm in the middle of nowhere.

Then he and his hired guide, Jevy, charter the Santa Loura, a small boat but one of the best to sail the Pantanal. They take the boat, eventually leaving it because they need a small motorboat. The Santa Loura subsequently sinks; they run out of food and gas; get lost in the swamp; and Nate contracts dengue fever.

Meanwhile the six other Phelan children and their bevy of lawyers are chomping at the bit to contest the will. The will claims that anyone who contests it forfeits her or his portion of the original settlement, but the Phelan children pay little attention to the wishes of their late father. Instead they hire lawyers, PR firms, and put on a show, claiming that their father was of diminished mental capacity when he made his final will.

They are much unlike their sister, Rachel, who rebuffs Nate when he finally reaches her. The life of service to God Rachel chose for herself does not involve money. The Ipicas do not use money, and she plans to live with them until her death. She has no reason to believe that she will ever need the fortune that her father left to her.

This beginning of this tale moves rather slowly, as the reader must get acquainted with all of the elements and the people involved. Grisham does a commendable job, however, of letting the reader get closest to Nate, who under another pen would not be an admirable character. Instead the reader wants Nate to succeed in finding Rachel and to make it out of the Pantanal alive. The Testament is one of the better experimental works Grisham has put out in recent years and is worthy of a read on that beach vacation.

By Julia Mercer

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