Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li is an enticing and stimulating escape: a heist novel that follows a group of young Chinese Americans in their quest to return stolen pieces of art to China. With a caper at its center and rebellion in its heart, Li’s debut is like Ocean’s Eleven meets Olga Dies Dreaming, a diaspora story wrapped up in a thriller.
When art history student Will Chen witnesses the theft of precious Chinese artifacts from the Harvard museum, it upends his life. Instead of revealing everything he knows to the authorities, he grabs a priceless carving for himself, and one of the thieves hands him a business card. He’s soon enlisting his sister and friends as his crew and flying first class to Beijing to meet the visionary behind a scheme to reclaim art plundered by Western governments. Chinese billionaire Wang Yuling offers Will $50 million to liberate five sculptures from museums across Europe and America.
A cinematic heist thriller with a social conscience, Portrait of a Thief is immediately appealing. But as this vivid and precisely crafted novel goes on, readers will be fascinated with the characters and their relationships as well as impressed by Li’s multifaceted exploration of Chinese American identity. The close third-person narration centers one of five characters in each chapter: Will; his tightly wound but charismatic sister, Irene; Daniel, a longtime family friend; Lily, a mechanical engineer and occasional street racer; and Alex, a software engineer who dropped out of MIT after her parents’ rent doubled. In addition to unique skills, each character has a distinct personality, motivations and perspective on being a child of the Chinese diaspora.
Though they don’t overshadow Portrait of a Thief’s strengths, some weaknesses are also evident. The gang often contemplates their Chinese heritage, but the content of their contemplations rarely evolves, which can make these reflections feel repetitive. More importantly, for such smart people, their approach to the heist is a bit thick. Watching Ocean’s Eleven for tips is ironic and funny, but a Google Doc for planning? Fortunately, rooting for these underdogs is tremendous fun, and the novel has a great sense of humor. While debating whether to move forward, the would-be thieves break out the whiteboard and do a quick pros and cons analysis: “There were just three bullet points. Making history, it read. China gets its art back. A shit ton of money.”
Portrait of a Thief is an unlikely heist story made even richer through excellent writing, indelible characters and an engaging anti-colonialist message.