Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian

Posted September 6, 2021 by Kate in review, tour / 0 Comments

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian
Published by Simon & Schuster Genres: Asian American, Family & Relationships, Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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An Indian-American magical realist coming of age story, spanning two continents, two coasts, and four epochs, in razor sharp and deeply funny prose, Sathian captures what it is to grow up as a member of a family, of a diaspora, and of the American meritocracy.
A floundering second-generation teenager growing up in the Bush-era Atlanta suburbs, Neil Narayan is authentic, funny, and smart. He just doesn't share the same drive as everyone around him. His perfect older sister is headed to Duke. His parents' expectations for him are just as high. He tries to want this version of success, but mostly, Neil just wants his neighbor across the cul-de-sac, Anita Dayal.
But Anita has a secret: she and her mother Anjali have been brewing an ancient alchemical potion from stolen gold that harnesses the ambition of the jewelry's original owner. Anjali's own mother in Bombay didn't waste the precious potion on her daughter, favoring her sons instead. Anita, on the other hand, just needs a little boost to get into Harvard. But when Neil--who needs a whole lot more--joins in the plot, events spiral into a tragedy that rips their community apart.
Ten years later, Neil is an oft-stoned Berkeley history grad student studying the California gold rush. His high school cohort has migrated to Silicon Valley, where he reunites with Anita and resurrects their old habit of gold theft--only now, the stakes are higher. Anita's mother is in trouble, and only gold can save her. Anita and Neil must pull off one last heist.
Gold Diggers is a fine-grained, profoundly intelligent, and bitingly funny investigation in to questions of identity and coming of age--that tears down American shibboleths.

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The literary world is becoming more and more diverse, opening doors to stories previously ignored. While many focus on the genre of general fiction, few are brave enough to ‘cross the streams’ and mix things up a bit. Enter Sanjena Sathian and her debut novel Gold Diggers, a magical-realism novel that’s eye-opening and absorbing in equal measure.

Neil is a slacker, which is an issue, especially as far as his parents are concerned. Lacking ambition, drive or direction in his young life, he is constantly admonished for his lack of achievements. His peers all seem to know what they are doing with their lives which makes it even worse. The only matter in which Neil is resolved is his obsession with Anita, the girl he has grown up with. Somehow, Anita seems to be accomplishing everything she sets her mind to, despite her perceived lack of money and an ‘unstable’ family. Concurrently, other’s lives are not quite going to plan, and Neil begins to query if there’s a connection. When he finds out the truth, it leads to tragedy.

Set against the backdrop of multi-generational Indian-American families, Gold Diggers is a fascinating look into the attitudes and expectations of the culture. Nothing is left to chance for the children of immigrants who came to America in search of fortune and a better life: strict rules, extra tuition, competitions, constant tests, all to make sure that the younger generation gets into the best Ivy League schools. Sacrifices were made decades ago, and it’s expected that the children will be grateful and do their best to succeed.

So, if you could help your child with a passed down secret concoction you would do, right? Even if it meant others coming to harm? This is precisely what Anita’s mum Anjali has been doing for years. Melting down the gold jewellery of the ambitious she’s able to create an elixir capable of embuing the drinker with the ambition and drive of its previous owner.  Using her job as a caterer of big celebrations in the Indian community has enabled Anjali to source only the best gold – Indian gold. In its purest 22c form, Indian gold symbolises the struggles of the countries inhabitants while displaying the successes those struggles have brought them, and Anjali is determined to take advantage of its power for her daughter. For when Anjali was young, her mother only made the drink for her brothers – never for her – as they were the only ones thought capable of success and fortune.

At first Gold Diggers reads like a moral tale of greed and success, but it’s so much more than that. Part magical folk-tale, part social analysis, its strengths come from the depiction of the struggles faced by not only the young Indian community but by those who came before- sometimes long before. One of the most riveting sections concerns the retelling of a story regarding an old Indian prospector just before the Gold Rush. This makes not only the reader but also the main character Neil aware of the history of his people, forcing him to contemplate what it means to be Indian-American.

Neil’s internal monologue is the main source of narrative for Gold Diggers, and I’m afraid it’s where it totally falls flat as a novel. Sathian has created a magnificent scenario, rich with incredibly descriptive and evocative prose, but placed it in the mouth of a deeply annoying main character. I simply did not care for him. Whiney and self-absorbed, Neils behaviour is often repugnant and inexcusable. Regularly you see glimpses of the far more interesting Anita and her mother, but it’s not enough to elevate the narrative or the plot. The sections that focus on the life of a young Anjali really play with your senses and transport you right into her life. But soon enough you’re dragged back to Neil and the reading becomes a chore again.

Gold Diggers has recently been optioned for US television by writer and producer of The Office, Mindy Kaling to be scripted by Sathian. I really hope that when it’s written, Kaling puts her own spin on it and pushes the more interesting characters to the forefront. There’s a truly important story to tell here of integration, immigration, pressure and success against a backdrop that will enable this without feeling preachy. Let’s just hope it’s through someone better than Neil.

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