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How Gold Diggers finds the horror in petty high school betrayal

In the Vox Book Club’s May pick, sin is petty and low-stakes. That’s what makes the book work.

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Penguin Press
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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Sanjena Sathian’s Gold Diggers, the Vox Book Club pick for May, is about a lot of things: being Indian American, alchemy, ambition, heists. But it is also, on a deep level, a novel about sin. Sin is the hinge on which the story’s plot turns. It is the thing that closes the door on our protagonists’ innocently cruel adolescence and brings him into numbing, corrupted adulthood.

I’ve already written a spoiler-free review of Gold Diggers, and I advise you to head there if you’re just getting started with this book. But otherwise, let’s zoom in on one specific angle of Gold Diggers, and take a close look at the central sin of Neil’s life.

Spoilers below

The giddy fun of Gold Diggers comes from the heist stuff: from watching Neil and his neighbor Anita pilfer gold from their classmates and then render it into lemonade, which they use to take just a little off the top of their classmates’ ambition. It’s cheating, sure, if you want to get technical about it, and it’s stealing, too, but it’s fun. It doesn’t feel really bad, not like a true betrayal, until Neil decides he needs to take all the ambition of Shruti Patel.

Shruti is one of Sathian’s best characters: a nerd who Neil describes with visceral disgust and yet whom he can’t seem to help admiring. We first learn of her at the high school dance when her date dodges her, and when she shows up at another party, her very presence is enough to chill the room. “You were too aware of the sounds of her mouth breathing,” Neil explains, “the way her face contorted when she tried to participate. It required emotional labor to include her.”

Still, Neil’s fallen into an easy competition with Shruti over their AP History grades, and he envies her casual academic confidence. “She’s got everything,” he tells Anita’s mother Anjali, even though he knows that isn’t really true. The only thing Shruti has are her good grades, and her knowledge that she will keep making good grades. She knows that she struggles in social situations, and she pretends not to care, but she cares more than she’d like.

Yet Neil is outraged that Shruti has even as much as she has, even as much as just her faith in her own intelligence. How can she? When Neil, who isn’t exactly cool but is at least a little higher in the high school pecking order than Shruti, has none of that? Shruti, Neil believes, is a real person. But he’s not.

“How could it be that Shruti believed in her future self enough to survive the fact of her unpopularity?” Neil demands. “Was it because she trusted a future Shruti was waiting, the girl just ahead of her in a relay race, to take the baton and bolt to Hong Kong, and college, and a better life? I lacked such certainty.”

When Shruti asks Neil to the Spring Fling, “with practiced nonchalance,” the moment carries all the underlying dread of a horror movie. Neil uses Shruti coldly, talking her into giving him a gold chain from her jewelry box before ditching her at the dance — and then is horrified to find she moves on from him almost at once. That’s what drives him to make more lemonade from her ambition than he should. That loss of ambition, and in its turn, the loss of some essential force, is what drives Shruti to die by suicide.

What makes this betrayal work so effectively as the crux of a novel is how petty and high school it is. Neil hates himself for not fitting in, and he resents Shruti, who fits in even less than he does, for having any consolation to her misery — for not hating herself even more than he hates himself.

He wants to steal her ambition to punish her, to bring her low, to make her feel as awful about herself as he feels about himself, and thus to make the world make emotional sense to him again. So he makes her think he likes her, makes out with her in private, abandons her in public, and then strives to humiliate her even more when she’s not as broken up about it as he thinks she should be.

How teenaged. How cruel and how low-stakes. It feels familiar and terrible and exactly like high school.

That’s why, even with the supernatural element in play, it feels emotionally true that Neil, a basically normal kid, would do something so awful it could leave a girl dead. Neil’s sin is the kind of petty bullshit evil that hardly anyone makes it through adolescence without inflicting, experiencing, or both, and you can feel both its authenticity and the intense pain it causes. So we’re willing to believe both that Neil would sin in such a way — and that he would have to spend his adulthood atoning.

Share your thoughts on Gold Diggers in the comments section below, and be sure to join us on May 19 for a live discussion event with Sanjena Sathian. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Gold Diggers discussion questions

  1. What would you do with alchemical ambition lemonade? I was a Shruti academics-wise as a teenager, so given more ambition, I probably would have stopped sleeping and branched out to try to bring in more extracurriculars.
  2. What do you think of Neil and Anita’s plan to atone for what they did to Shruti by stealing more gold for Anjali?
  3. Talk to me about the Bombayan Gold Digger, who Neil attempts to track throughout history and is always afraid will turn out to be fictional. How do you feel about his redemptive appearance in Neil’s vision at the end of the novel?
  4. Part of Neil’s project in this book is finding a way to deal with the big question of the Miss Teen India pageant: “What does it mean to be both Indian and, like, American?” Do you think he succeeds?
  5. A lot of Gold Diggers is devoted to unpacking the idea of ambition as “immigrant shit,” as Anita puts it — and the idea of a winner-takes-all economy in which there can only be one true winner. How do you think it works?