Portrait of a Thief
Five Chinese American college students become justice-driven international art thieves in this Ocean’s Eleven-ish heist novel. When he’s made an offer he can’t refuse, MIT student Will Chen recruits four brilliant accomplices—all with looming midterms—to fulfill an audacious goal: to break into art museums in five countries, in order to steal back artifacts that were once wrongfully stolen from China. If they succeed, they’ll receive a life-changing $50 million payout. The heist storyline pops and fizzes, but Li crams in plenty of substance alongside her flashy plot: an exploration of identity and belonging, crushing familial expectations, desires, love, and calling, plus meaningful LGBTQ representation and the seamless integration of pandemic realities. Word to the wise: This reads more Hollywood than real life but you’ll enjoy the ride. For fans of Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and Daniel Silva’s The Cellist.
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“The thefts are engaging and surprising, and the narrative brims with international intrigue. Li, however, has delivered more than a straight thriller here, especially in the parts that depict the despair Will and his pals feel at being displaced, overlooked, underestimated and discriminated against. This is as much a novel as a reckoning.”
—New York Times Book Review
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.