Study Guide

The Testament

by John Grisham

The Testament Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Testament is a change of pace for popular legal- thriller writer John Grisham. His latest novel takes the reader deep into the jungles of Brazil, where a devout, middle-aged missionary-physician, who has turned her back on civilization, is unaware that she is heir to an eleven-billion-dollar estate, which is growing at about two million dollars a day. Nate O’Riley, once a dynamic trial lawyer, is released from the sanatorium where he is recovering from yet another relapse into dipsomania and given the assignment of finding Rachel Lane, illegitimate daughter of Troy Phelan. No one even knew that Phelan had an illegitimate daughter until he named her his sole heir in a holographic will just before leaping out his fourteenth-floor office window to his death.

The old tycoon had six legitimate children from three marriages. They range from Troy Phelan, Jr., who is in his late forties, to Ramble Phelan, an obnoxious, aspiring punk rocker who is only fourteen. They consider themselves the only rightful heirs, and all hire lawyers to contest their father’s will. The lawyers gather like hyenas around a fresh carcass. Some of them are eventually eliminated by infighting, while the survivors join forces behind Hark Gettys, who is smarter and more unscrupulous than any of the others. They agree they must contest the will on the grounds that Phelan was mentally incompetent when he signed the document in the presence of many witnesses, including three reputable psychiatrists who all found him completely sane, and then committed suicide because he had just gotten tired of living. The lawyers have agreed to pay Malcolm Snead, Phelan’s chief assistant for the past thirty years, five million dollars for falsely testifying that the old man had been growing increasingly insane for several years before composing his final testament. They are hoping that if they put up a strong enough fight, the executor of the estate, Joshua Stafford, will offer to settle out of court. All six legitimate children and their three mothers are portrayed as parasites who have already wasted most of the millions they were able to get from Phelan during his lifetime. Phelan felt he had already given them more than they deserved, and he certainly did not want any of them to have a hand in running his corporate empire.

The narrative alternates between the flooded, mosquito-infested, infernally hot Pantanal region of Brazil and the plush, air- conditioned homes and offices of Washington, D.C., and its sprawling suburbs. By the time Nate O’Riley makes it to Corumbá, a polyglot boomtown of ninety thousand on the Paraguay River, he has come to realize that his biggest problem will not be in finding Rachel Lane but in staying sober. He still has an irresistible craving for liquor. He demonstrates this by nearly killing himself with a bottle and a half of cheap vodka on the night before he is scheduled to start upriver.

After a series of misadventures on a bewildering labyrinth of rivers filled with alligators and anacondas, Nate finally gets to meet Rachel Lane. She is a slender, softspoken, compassionate woman in her early forties, who has lived among the same dwindling population of Ipicas for the past eleven years. She is not the least bit interested in money, and Nate cannot persuade her to sign a document accepting Phelan’s bequest. In fact, he cannot even get her to discuss the estate because of her bitterness toward her father. She does enjoy spending time with Nate, however, because she has no opportunities to speak English among the Ipicas, a population virtually unknown to the rest of the world. A platonic love relationship develops between a man who thought he was interested only in money and a woman who is interested only in serving God by serving humanity.

The rivers are infested with clouds of mosquitos, many carrying malaria and dengue fever germs. When Nate starts back toward Corumbá in a small, open boat (the larger craft that carried him upriver having sunk in a storm), he is seized with chills and fever. He has succumbed to dengue fever, a disease deadlier than malaria. While he is lying near death in a primitive hospital, Rachel Lane appears at his bedside and assures him that he is not going to die, because God has plans for him. When he finally recovers, he searches the town for the missionary but can find no trace of her. Everyone assures him he must have been having hallucinations.

The viewpoint character—and the only character in the novel who changes—is Nate O’Riley. His dramatic conversion after his brief encounter with the dedicated missionary seems incredible. It is reminiscent of the spiritual transformation that supposedly occurred to journalist Henry Morton Stanley when he found British...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)