Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian

Magical realism? I was intrigued. This book shifts between two time periods, two continents, and several characters. While I am glad that I read it, I have a special mental jail for the main character, Neil.


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. from Goodreads.


I was so excited to read this story. After looking at the books I read in January and seeing it be very white, I wanted to add more representation into my reading. I was much more interested in the Indian-American part of the story than the coming-of-age or the magical realism. That worked out well since the history, culture, and insight of being an Indian-American and an Indian immigrant were my favorite parts of this book.

There seems to be – pervasive in America – a myth that if you get into a specific university your entire life is a guaranteed success. Many people fall for this but it seems to be even more prevalent in immigrant families. Neil, his sister Prachi, and his next-door neighbor Anita, are all second-generation Indian immigrants whose parents have sacrificed everything for them to live in America. In return, they are expected to thrive by American standards without losing their cultural identity. Anita wants to transfer to an elite private high school – a stepping stone to an Ivy League education. Prachi is headed for Duke. Both girls are competing for the next Miss Teen India. And Neil is researching random crap at the library while hiding from his debate partner. Both girls are following in the footsteps of their hard working mothers and trying to find success in being the best at whatever they are doing. Neil is trying to get Anita’s attention, get his parents off his back, and avoid doing any more work than he absolutely needs to do until, well, until the next thing happens in his life. Neil sucks.

In fact, Neil only becomes part of the story by sitting in his room pretending he doesn’t have work to do and low-key spying on Anita. Peeping, creeping Neil stumbles onto what Anjali and Anita are doing with the magical potion. I’m not even sure that Neil wants in on the whole alchemical thing so much as he wants in Anita’s pants.

Now, Anjali and Anita fascinated me. Growing up in India, Anjali’s mother provided her brothers’ the potion but did not allow Anjali any since, as a girl, it would have been a waste of good gold. Anjali’s own mother allowed her community to determine the worth of her child. And, here in America, Anjali and Anita allowed this new community to define the worth of Anita. When Anita’s elite dreams felt out of reach, Anjali provided the potion to bring those dreams closer. Obviously, the heists that brought in the gold for the potion lead to tragedy (it says so in the book jacket). But watching Anjali succeed despite her upbringing and being married to a real pooper of a man was far more fascinating than anything Neil was doing.

Do we get to hear the story of Anjali or Anita though? Not really. Everything is told through Neil and I hated him for it. Anita and Anjali had this whole thing worked out perfectly until Neil came along and messed it all up. Ten years later, Neil is still a man-child with no ambition and yet Anita brings him back in to help her with another heist-like plan! This dude…..I just don’t see the appeal. Neil sucks so hard that I wanted to reach into the pages and smack some sense into him (metaphorically).

Overall the book was like a nesting doll. The story makes so many good points about how Indian immigrants want their children to succeed in America without actually loosing any part of their Indian heritage. Perhaps featuring an unintelligent, spoiled, lazy, self-centered man-child who ruins everything for the strong and driven women in his life was some kind of elaborate metaphor for the whole immigrant experience. But I hated Neil too much to dig deeply enough to tell!

This book is absolutely worth the read. The author is undoubtedly talented and the story stayed with me long after I closed the cover. It made me thing, certainly feel, and want to read more from her. But, in case I wasn’t total clear, Neil is the worst.

Tell me, please! Have you ever really liked a book but hated the main character?


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