Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Series: Dairy Queen, #3
Published: 2009, Graphia
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: Paperback, 254 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
Contains spoilers for Dairy Queen (my review) & The Off Season (my review)
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Lying in bed that night, I almost started crying. Who knew a date would be so much work? It was never like that when I went out with Amber, hanging out with her at Taco Bell. That was just fun. And sure, I'd laughed tonight, and even cracked a couple of jokes. But I was just so aware every second of what I was doing and how I was acting. Worrying I wasn't doing it right. Is this was being popular meant? Getting ulcers? Instead of being a background nobody with Amber?
Maybe Brian had been smart to stay away from me in public. Maybe he understood me better that I'd even thought. Maybe he'd been right after all.
I must admit that after concluding this trilogy, Dairy Queen remains my favorite of the three. That's not to say that I haven't enjoyed The Off Season or Front and Center, but they did not manage to affect me quite the way the introduction to D.J.'s life did. Still, what a wonderful trilogy this is. Wonderful and unexpected. I'm not generally a fan of contemporaries, nor do I always love reading series, but powering straight through this series was refreshing and reinvigorated my love of contemporaries done right. I am exiting this series a little maternally, actually, as I've fondly watched D.J. and those around her grow to such incredible but believable heights. I know that they will be fine in their lives, even though Murdock has officially penned their last words.
D.J. is ready for a sense of normalcy to return to her life once more. She spent the last month and a half out of school, staying with her brother Win as he began his slow road to recovery following a severe spinal cord injury. Before that, she had to give up playing boys' football due to a shoulder injury that could have ruined her basketball game. And for the six months prior to that, D.J.'s grades suffered and she was forced to quit playing on the basketball team because her father's hip injury meant that all the daily Schwenk dairy farm duties fell upon her. Things seem to be stabilizing now, however, and D.J. is ready to retreat to the background and focus on playing basketball once more.
But nothing is simple for D.J., even when everything seems to be going well. As a junior and the star basketball player of her high school, D.J. finds herself overwhelmed by the amount of pressure put upon her to get a basketball scholarship for college. Her brother Win tries to encourage her in his own way, her coach tries to get D.J. to speak up and became the leader her team needs, the school and team depend on D.J.'s playing abilities, all while D.J. is very much aware of the fact that any chance for her to go to college is dependent on her receiving a scholarship. On top of that, she's getting attention from friend who wants to become more than a friend, and from Brian Nelson, who still won't leave her alone, even in her thoughts. D.J.'s family is proud of what she's accomplished so far and she has a better relationship with them all. But going from everything being wrong to everything suddenly being overwhelmingly good and focused on her future does not make for an easy transition.
After the two books focused on D.J. trying to gain her voice and confidence, all the while being limited by the needs of others, here, as the title so aptly pronounces, readers are finally able to witness D.J. take the front and center stage in her life. But front and center is definitely a difficult place to be, especially with someone as uncomfortable being noticed as D.J. is. A large portion of this book is dedicated to D.J.'s uncertainty and tendency to waffle over decisions. Does she really like Beaner? If so, why doesn't she feel the same spark that she still feels for Brian? Does she want to play Division I basketball? Is she even good enough to do so? How can she become a better leader on her school's team? What does her family want her to do? And, most importantly, what does she want to do about everything?
In pursuit of answers to some of these questions, D.J. makes many, many mistakes. Despite the significant praise and acclaim D.J. has received from friends, family, teammates, college recruiters, and more, D.J. continues to lack self-confidence. While certainly understandable, the intense focus on D.J.'s indecision has a tendency to become frustratingly overwrought at times. By this point in the series, readers and supporting characters alike know that D.J. is more than capable of handling any task thrown her way; she's just not quite at the point where she can admit that to herself. And that's okay. D.J. is only sixteen years old and, appropriately, does not have her life planned out just yet. All of her waffling brings her closer and closer to figuring out what she really wants, and, at the end of the day, that is what matters.
The best part of this book - of the whole trilogy, really - is the strength of character development. D.J. feels wonderfully real, as do all the other characters she comes to interact with. The Schwenk family is not one I'll easily forget. And, much to my surprise, the relationship between D.J. and Brian has become one of my favorite YA romances. It would have been so easy for me to dismiss Brian, for so many of his actions are seemingly unforgivable. Yet, he's crafted with the same attention to detail as everyone else, thus becoming fully three-dimensional and understandable, even if I cannot condone all of his actions. D.J. and Brian really do bring out the best in one another, and I really enjoyed witnessing their mutual growth. And the growth of all the characters within this story.
Front and Center is a worthy conclusion to D.J.'s story. Although I almost wish that Murdock would write more, I am content with using my imagination from here to see how the lives of the Schwenk family and all those they touched would continue. I never would have thought that stories about a girl who lives on a dairy farm, plays football and basketball, is self-sacrificing in the aid she provides to her family, and is forced the pitfalls and uncertainties of college sports scholarships would make its way to my favorite contemporary series, but it has. Murdock's series is one that should not be missed by fans of sports, strong female protagonists, or just anyone who enjoys a well-told story.
Rating: 4 stars