Sanjena Sathian’s novel Gold Diggers is concerned with conventional paths to success, and the possibilities that arise when we break from them. We meet the narrator, Neil Narayan, at a high school dance, where he sees dancing as a prescribed activity, a script. “I depended on scripts,” he thinks, “in those days before anyone asked me to invent my own life.”
As a teen Neil is already off-script. He’s more interested in history than STEM, he doesn’t pine after a dream college, and he nurses a massive crush on Anita Dayal, a childhood friend who lives in his cul-de-sac. Anita is driven. (“Anita’s only plan in life, as long as I had known her, was to attend Harvard.”) Her success, however, is boosted by a magical realist element: an alchemical “lemonade,” brewed from stolen gold, that elevates the drinker’s ambition. Anita’s been swiping gold – and with it, the ambitions of its owners – from her second-gen classmates. When Neil finds out, he wants in.
With great specificity, Gold Diggers animates a community of dominant-caste, upper-middle-class Indian American teens in the Bush-era Atlanta suburbs. The novel captures the intense anxiety these teens feel about the expectations they’ve internalized. At one point, flunking Kumon, Neil feels “it wasn’t our job just to grow up, but to grow up in such a way that made sense of our parents’ choice to leave behind all they knew, to cross the oceans.”
It’s worth noting this is a funny book. Following Neil and Anita through their teenage striving, Sathian’s dexterity as a social observer and satirist is on full display. With equal ease she bears witness to high school debate and a local Miss Teen India America pageant to reveal the hollowness of certain kinds of rituals. But Gold Diggers side-steps out-and-out satire, instead centering the tragic costs of stealing ambition from others. In Neil’s recollections of the lemonade period of his life, he feels that “unattained lives mushroomed over the Dayals’ den…we were breathing them, feeding on all that had not come to pass.”
We follow the long-term effects of stolen ambition with a time-jump. In the novel’s second half, Neil and Anita are in their twenties, estranged from each other, encountering high school friends in the future-obsessed Bay Area. And there are new roadmaps to success and happiness: make money, get married, buy a home.
Again Neil is off-script. He’s in grad school studying history. He’s burned out and heavily reliant on an array of drugs. He struggles to write his dissertation. Instead he is obsessed with the “Bombayan,” the story of a 19th century Hindu gold digger of whom he cannot find evidence. But Neil’s fixation goes beyond the historical – it’s what Anita would call “identity shit.” He is in search of an ancestor. He wants to find himself in American history; more than this, he wants to unlock other ways of being. “If our collective past was more textured than I’d been led to believe,” he thinks, “then, well, maybe there were other ways of being brown on offer.”
Then there is a culturally-inflected script: marriage. Neil’s sister gets engaged, bringing the Indian American wedding industrial complex into view. At a San Francisco party, Neil meets the woman who invented Dil Day, a stand-in for South Asian dating apps like Dil Mil and Kama, which are wack for many reasons but here a source of minor comedy. “It’s for future-oriented South Asian professionals,” the founder says. “Believe it or not, they’re – we’re – willing to pay more in the marriage space than any other group.”
As marriage replaces college as a socially-prescribed script for his generation, Neil, a self-described romantic, is more concerned with love. Gold Diggers is at its core a love story between Neil and Anita, who link up to carry out a final heist. With Anita, as with his search for the Bombayan, Neil finds something like belonging; he feels himself “not disappearing into Anita but becoming more of a person.” When they reunite, he muses that he and Anita are “conceptual orphans”: We had not grown up imbibing stories that implicitly conveyed answers to the basic questions of being: What did it feel like to fall in love in America, to take oneself for granted in America? This is what Neil wants – not scripts for success, but relief from them. He wants more possibilities for how to be a person in the world.
As much as Gold Diggers is a warning against borrowed ambition, it is also an invitation: go off-script, invent your own life. This invitation, if familiar, is an urgent one. Sathian has written elsewhere about the model minority myth and the anti-Asian violence it conceals; she calls it a “failure of the American imagination.” Gold Diggers is a fierce redress to this imaginative failure. The book reminds us that not only are there ways to live other than what we’ve been sold on, but that these possibilities may be more satisfying, renewable, and liberating.