Grace D. Li
Five Chinese American college students try to steal priceless works of art from major museums in order to return them to the homeland from which they were pillaged.
Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell in Portrait of a Thief, a lush, lyrical heist novel inspired by the true story of Chinese art vanishing from Western museums; about diaspora, the colonization of art, and the complexity of the Chinese American identity.
History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now.
Will Chen plans to steal them back.
A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago.
His crew is every heist archetype one can imagine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down.
Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted attempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.
Equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, and thrilling, Portrait of a Thief is a cultural heist and an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary critique of the lingering effects of colonialism.
Portrait of a Thief is a unique debut novel that explores identity, the Chinese diaspora, and the last effects of colonialism through a story of an unlikely, inexperienced group of college students undertaking major art heists.
When it came to reviewing this book, I had a lot to digest. I was excited to read a heist novel that dove into a bit of art history and the continuing colonialism in the art world. However, Grace D. Li clearly meant for Portrait of a Thief to make an impact beyond an entertaining story about a group of friends committing theft.
I found Portrait of a Thief to be a semi-successful, but definitely amusing, attempt of a heist novel. The fact that an incredibly wealthy adult would hire a rag-tag group of college students to rob some of the foremost museums in the world requires some suspension of belief. Details in planning and during the actual events seem to be something the reader is intended to overlook or accept while marveling at the success or failure of the group. While these things did not ultimately bother me too much, I think Portrait of a Thief would have been a more successful if it had been more tongue-in-cheek than it was. Instead, Li writes a novel that takes itself quite seriously and is filled with characters musing about their identities, families, colonialism, and art.
While the plot was compelling and the characters fleshed out, I think Li’s desire to make a statement about diaspora within a heist novel left the book without a cohesive narrative or clear takeaway. Throughout its pages, Portrait of a Thief repetitively mentions grief, longing, and loss, and readers are presumably supposed to connect these to Chinese diaspora and their identities as first or second generation Chinese Americans. The characters all struggle to varying degrees with these emotions and seek healing. But I would argue that Li failed to clearly establish the source of these feelings or their relation to the diaspora. In addition, Li seemingly argues that money equates with ultimate happiness. She also offers an idolized view of China, which I think most people will find at odds with their own perceptions or knowledge.
By the end of Portrait of a Thief, I had grown tired of the repetitious nature of the characters’ personal stories and descriptions. Furthermore, I was left unsatisfied with the lack of connection between the characters’ motivations, feelings, and identities.
Overall, I did enjoy Portrait of a Thief and found it to be an entertaining read. But I think Li lacked clarity about she wanted the book to be – a heist novel or a character study of Chinese American identity and diaspora – and thus, failed to fully execute either. Instead of offering my usual recommendation, I leave it up to you to weigh the pros and cons and decide whether this book is right for you.
Portrait of a Thief
April 5, 2022
Note: I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher, Tiny Reparations Books. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.