Some gold, some lemonade, and a whole lot of ambition—the recipe for immigrant success in Sanjena Sathian's 'Gold Diggers'
Sanjena Sathian's debut novel, Gold Diggers (Penguin Press, 2021), is set in an Indian American enclave within suburban Atlanta, a pressure-cooker environment where model minority strivers work tirelessly to excel in AP classes, debate tournaments, and teen pageants. Just beneath the gilded surface of top grades, estimable extracurriculars, and Ivy League acceptances is the discomfiting reality of substance abuse and mental health issues. In her novel, Sathian adroitly depicts how her characters navigate the pressure to succeed, as all young, second-generation Americans must do.
Neeraj "Neil" Narayan, the narrator-protagonist, is an underachieving ABCD (American-born confused desi) who struggles under the weight of his family's lofty expectations. After discovering that Anita, his childhood friend, and her mother have been stealing gold—and by extension ambition—from other desis and melting it to make magical lemonade, he decides that he wants in on their scheme. Just a sip of the lemonade imbues Neil and Anita with the drive to temporarily accomplish everything they set their mind to. But when a certain tragedy strikes, they are forced to reflect on the dangers of "stealing" ambition. Years later, Neil and Anita, each haunted by their gold pilfering past, reunite for one final, adrenaline-rushing heist.
Sathian's prose weaves through various timelines to demonstrate how the past and the present are intimately connected. As the plot progresses, it becomes evident that everyone—from the "forty-niners" (those who sought gold during the California Gold Rush of 1849) to the millennials of contemporary Silicon Valley—is chasing gold and/or glory.
Gold Diggers does not fit easily into any one genre. It is a stimulating fusion of literary fiction, bildungsroman, magical realism, social satire, and what the protagonist, Anita, might call "immigrant shit." It is a sweeping story that derives its power as much from Sathian's sharp and witty writing as it does from keen social commentary. At the heart of the novel is the question: "What does it mean to be both Indian and American?" In attempting to answer this question, Sathian examines themes of cultural identity, generational divide, familial expectation, and the American dream. She pointedly and effectively explores these issues without getting overly didactic.
While the novel's premise is rich with possibility, Sathian does not always make the most of it. Perhaps she has bitten off more than she is ready to chew. The novel starts to lose its momentum in its second half as the plot meanders and ultimately leads to a quick and less-than-satisfying resolution. In addition, the fact that the misogynistic and crass Neil is the narrator dilutes the story's power. Although Sathian most likely uses Neil's character to counter the stereotype of the Asian-American nerd, the story would have been markedly stronger if it had focused more on Anita and her mother's perspectives since they are the ones with the literal recipe for success.
Despite its flaws, however, Gold Diggers is an ambitious story with much to offer. That is why it comes as no surprise that the novel will be adapted into a TV series by Mindy Kaling's production company.
Jahin Kaiissar is a freelance writer and a recent graduate of Brac University, where she earned her MA in English.