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.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.
Chinese diaspora grief, pain, joy, and loss, summed up in a single book. Absolutely brilliant.
Despite the marketing of this book as a fun art heist novel featuring Chinese-americans and colonialism, this book is NOT that. Anyone coming in expecting an Oceans 8-esque tone is going to be left disappointed. Instead, A Portrait of a Thief reads more like a literary character study using the heist setting as a vehicle to explore the different facets of being Chinese American.
And damn does Li do a phenomenal job with those character studies. Our five main characters, Will and Irene Chen, Lily Wu, and Alex Huang, are so well crafted to really embody the different facets and experiences different Chinese Americans experience growing up as a child of two worlds. Growing up in the back of a crowded Chinese restaurant, the pressure that getting into a good college will unlock all doors for your future because that’s what happened to your parents, the bitter love between parent and child through the teenage years of wanting to please but wanting to be your own person. In this book, I felt seen.
Li’s prose throughout this book is beautiful, in a way that hooked me in from the very beginning. There’s something both very literary yet approachable to her writing that just draws the reader in. The musings on colonialism, on the rightful ownership of art, and the Western lens through which Chinese culture too often gets examined, are so poignantly done. I especially loved that Li really plays with having distinct prose styles with each of the five POV characters, which just adds even more distinctness to each character. Li really brings out a phenomenal debut voice and I can’t wait to see what she brings next.
Because the heist kind of takes a back seat, I think the plot is probably the weakest part of the story. The heists, to some of the greatest, most secure museums in the word, are plotted over WhatApp, Zoom, and Google Docs. Hiiighly insecure. The heist-y bits were enjoyable but very very short and the five seemed to really get away with some of their heists only because the plot demanded it. Honestly speaking, they probably should have gotten arrested immediately after the first one. That being said, the ending of the story actually took me by surprise and I was really really pleased with it.
Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. Li brings out an absolutely stunning debut novel that so beautifully highlights the different facets of being Chinese American in your early 20s. When I finished, I had to put this book down and collect myself because I was so in awe with the way this was explored. Highly highly highly recommend.