Gold Diggers by Sanjina Sathian is two parts a story about children of Indian immigrants balancing tradition with assimilation. It’s one part a history, with a nod to alternative histories. And it’s another part of magical realism that draws on cultural traditions, alchemy, and some major imagination. Mix it all together and you get a pleasing story of Anita and Neil’s high school years in Atlanta, followed by a reconnection ten years down the line.
Sathian tells the story from Neil Narayan’s viewpoint. He’s a teenager without the drive that characterized his parents’ generation. Instead, he’s content playing video games and just squeaking by on his grades. All the while, his inner thoughts have plenty to say about the Indian-American cultural norms roiling about him in suburban Atlanta.
In a typical teenage paradox, Neil also covets the mindset and lifestyle of his classmate and neighbor, Anita Dayal. She and her mother Anjali have focus and drive. They also have secrets that Neil discovers unexpectedly.
The two women dip regularly into a special “lemonade.” The key ingredient here is gold, stolen from ambitious owners, and the feelings contained within. Here’s where the story veers into magical realism because of course, harnessing the alchemy needed to refine gold in such a way is a fantastical dream.
Sathian imbues Neil with the typical second-generation quandaries. He struggles to decide how much to assimilate into American high school culture. And while he critiques the mores of his community, he’s also 100% teenage male. He feels plenty of angst and makes missteps that lead to life-long regret.
On the other hand, Anita is seen through Neil’s eyes. We assume she’s all ambition and drive, living out the life her mother never did. Until the two meet up ten years after high school. Then as they discover each other’s recent past, Anita’s truth becomes clearer to Neil. Sathian finally gives us insight too. In the midst of this, Sathian adds a heist storyline. Because Anita, Anjali, and Neil must amass gold for a new purpose. The heist adds plenty of intensity to a story that meanders through a young, unmotivated narrator’s eyes. It also offers Sathian the opportunity to flesh out untold parts of the earlier story.
Given its genre mash-up, Gold Diggers never seemed choppy. Everything flows as Neil discovers the truths about his friend, his community of Indian Americans, and most importantly, himself. Sathian writes us into the depths of his mind, from its most shallow moments to the times he delves into deeper fears and feelings of not belonging.
I thoroughly enjoyed this unique story. Obviously, readers must put aside any disbelief and just roll with the alchemical storyline. Still, there’s plenty about love, family, and real-life emotion to balance the magical realism.
Pairings and something extra
Pair with Attention, A Love Story by Casey Schwartz because her memoir centers on the need to achieve when your mind and heart aren’t really in the game. And that’s just like Neil’s fictional character.
Even better, pair this with Evil Eye, an Audible Original production from Madhuri Shekar. Both books discuss the conflict between long-time cultural traditions and mindsets and the Americanization of second generations. Although I didn’t review it here, you can watch me talk with Shawn the Book Maniac about it on his BookTube, Bite-Sized Book Chats, The 15th Episode.