Portrait of a Thief Book Review
Author: Grace D. Li Written By: Elliot Eatinger Release Date: April 5th, 2022
Summary: A robbery at the National Museum of Asian Art (specifically the Sackler Gallery)–and Will Chen’s impeccably-timed witnessing to the theft–sparks the opportunity of a lifetime. Will is a senior Art History major at Harvard University with a sharp eye for the beauty in the world and ambition to match. Like any college student, he’s seeking out answers to the rest of his life. And this is how they get there, with an offer from a private and elusive benefactor to steal back five Chinese sculptures from museums around the world.
Five Chinese-American college students stare down the impossible–each of them filling a heist archetype role and defying conventions of every mold they have tried to fill over the course of their lives. Alex, the software engineer who left MIT for Silicon Valley with a determination to make a better life for everyone around her; Daniel, the pre-med student with a penchant for quick hands and fast plans, while also grappling with a fractured relationship with his FBI agent father; Lily, the mechanical engineer getaway driver who flies fast to outrun the feelings of doubt; Irene, the public policy major con artist who makes sure everyone sees what they want to, yet feels as if she lives in the shadow of her brother, Will.
Then there’s Will who is as afraid as he is ready. The future before him is vast and uncertain– both with a promise of enough money to start over and to return priceless artifacts back where they belong.
They have to be ready. They’ve got to prepare to become the world’s greatest art thieves. The journey they’re taken on is as much about the thrill of the heist, as it is about cultural identity in the diaspora, the long-lasting sociocultural effects of colonialism, and the unending certainty of what it means to grow up and live through an ever-changing American landscape.
Blurbs: “A leader. Will had spent so many years studying art and how it changed hands. His whole life—it had brought him here. Of course it had. He would be the one to sort through the art at the Drottningholm Palace, determine what they would take and what they would leave behind. A con artist. His sister, her smile in the dark. Irene was a public policy major, had always understood people and what they wanted. She could shape the world to her will. A thief. Daniel in a faraway palace, his hands as they skimmed over the stolen art. He would be a surgeon someday, had always known how to break things open, put them back together exactly as they were. A hacker. Alex, who had left MIT for Silicon Valley, who had never found a problem she couldn’t solve. When they got to Sweden, she would manage their police radar, their burner phones, construct alibis for them based on location sharing and GPS. And, finally, a getaway driver. Will thought of seeing Lily for the first time, headlights sweeping over an empty road. Beijing, the two of them on a motorcycle beneath the rising sun. When Lily drove, nothing could touch her if she did not want it to.”
A Brief-ish Review: There is literally so much I want to say but I do not want to spoil the book and all of its wondrous rises and falls. So I will do what I can.
I utterly adore how character-centric the novel is. You really get inside of their heads and understand their motives along every single step of the way. Each chapter follows the point of view of one of the protagonists, titling the chapter with their name; and often starts it with an introduction to where they currently are in the narrative and how they fit into the story. Naturally, they all start off in their different corners of the United States–save for Lily and Irene, who are roommates at Duke University. But the story–much like the heist team–inevitably brings them together until they are impossible to detach.
The novel’s strengths undoubtedly lie within each of the character’s impossibly rich lives, and I almost wish we could have seen a little more out of each of them. But in Li’s sharp and precise narration, perhaps that’s the very point of it. We get more about their lives, their hearts, their wants and their fears, as each of the five learns to open up and let down their defenses with one another. Daniel’s story in particular with his father, a widower FBI agent from Beijing who is in charge of handling art crimes, gripped me by offering a delicate but unafraid portrayal of cultural conflict and grief between father and son.
And yes, there are plenty of heist capers and rivalries and impossible feats that make more and more sense both in their successes and shortcomings, such as with learning the inner workings of Will, Irene, Lily, Alex, and Daniel.
I was pleasantly surprised with how subtle but poignant Li’s portrayal of a post-pandemic world was. Again, there are little things that I found myself maybe asking one too many questions about the logistics, which weren’t the point, but we get to see how living through this particular era affected them. There is a clear expression of grief for the way things once were, as much as there is a complex grief and pride in their ties (or lack of sometimes) to their Chinese heritage.
The romances–which I will again not spoil–had me hooked. While not the main point of the story, they do not detract from the narrative’s purpose for each of them, and instead offer a compelling look into their lives outside of becoming a heist team. Trust me on this–there is an effortlessly done rivals-to-lovers in here that almost had me convinced it wasn’t true until it hits you point-blank.
In terms of critique: At first, the pacing was a bit difficult for me. There were certain parts that felt hesitant, and sometimes repetitive in thought as each of them contemplates very similar notions, but Li finds her stride with the call to action in Act One, and much like the characters’ drive, it takes off running and never looks back. I was also curious about the weight of consequence in the story and would be interested in getting a closer look into the climactic conflicts of interest in both Acts Two and Three.
I’m really eager to see what she might do next. It seems like Portrait of a Thief already has a bright future, with it having been optioned for TV by Netflix last year.
Ultimately, the extreme heart of the story and the excellent use of narrative surprise and detail to tie every thread in won me over. A good heist story pulls you in with surprises and thrills; a great heist story is the one where you want them to win no matter how high they rise or how hard they fall. Portrait of a Thief evolves from the tropes it starts off with – about change, adventure, risk and reward – into an exciting and profoundly personal coming-of-age tale that dares to defy any and all genre limitations.
Until next time–make sure you pick up a copy of Portrait of a Thief, officially out on April 5th, 2022. You won’t regret it!