“Forfeit” by Dick Francis



Dick Francis

I hadn’t read “Forfeit” in, oh, twenty years or something, until I recently picked it up and reread it. As always, rereading is as enlightening as reading.

“Forfeit” is one of Francis’s slighter works in many ways, but it gets added depth by the interactions between Ty (the hero) and his wife Elizabeth, who has been paralyzed by polio. Rather than exciting scenes of horseback riding (Ty doesn’t ride once, and only occasionally goes to the races), the tension in the story is largely generated by Ty’s conflict over his sexual desire, which hasn’t gone anywhere with his wife’s paralysis, and his desire to be faithful to the woman whom he still loves.

When I read the story as a teenager I was struck by the drama of the situation but had a hard time sympathizing with either character, both Ty’s inner conflict and Elizabeth’s fear that he would leave her over it, abandoning her to a life of utter dependency on strangers. Having spent the past several years quite ill (although not, thank God, completely paralyzed like Elizabeth–yet, at least), I was struck on the reread how well Francis captured both characters’ emotional struggles. As always, he had a sharp eye for detail and for character, conveying in a few well-chosen phrases the agony that many writers about illness try and fail to convey in pages of purple prose.

The climactic action scene is also a gem. I don’t want to give away anything about it, but once again Francis takes the mundane and turns it into high drama.

“Forfeit” is probably not Francis’s best work, but it’s good, and well worth reading both because it’s a compelling read and because of his insight into the experiences of people struggling with difficulties, disabilities, and physical helplessness, a common theme in his work that takes perhaps its most overt form here. It’s one of his more “domestic” works, and probably one of his more autobiographical books (Ty is a journalist, like Dick was, and Mary Francis was briefly paralyzed, providing the inspiration for this story) but it’s never boring.

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