Artifice, Art Heists, and Asian-American Identity: A Review of Grace D. Li’s “Portrait of a Thief”
Despite promising primarily high octane thrills, the greatest con Grace D. Li’s debut novel pulls on its readers is that it is a novel solely about stolen art.
By Lance Serafica
This review contains mild spoilers.
Picture this: you are a college student strolling through an art museum, the kind renowned worldwide of its collection. You are here as an intern, privy to a world you’d seen before only in the pages of overpriced textbooks. There’s something wondrous and overwhelming about all of the pieces housed there, different eras and artists and worlds housed under one vaulted ceiling. You walk into one of those many rooms, blissfully unaware of what is about to happen.
Then you notice glass, shattered on the hardwood floor. A thief, clad in all black, brushes past you. You stand frozen as if you are one of the other statues in the museum’s collection. Not a single piece of art is left in the room—none, except for a single jade tiger, its mate taken in the theft. You don’t know what possesses you, but you pocket it.
So begins Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief. Starring an ensemble cast in tradition with many media in the heist genre, this much-anticipated debut novel details the exploits of five Chinese/Chinese-American college students as they are offered the chance of a lifetime to earn fifty million dollars in exchange for stealing back five missing Chinese sculptures taken by the West from the East many years ago. These five students—art-enamored Will Chen, his sister and untouchable con-woman Irene Chen, her roommate and street racer-turned-getaway-driver Lily Wu, Will’s best friend and expert thief Daniel Liang, and Will’s not-quite-ex and hacker Alex Huang—are the five perspectives from which this novel is told and must travel everywhere from Sweden to France in order to retrieve these sculptures.
Like many other readers, I was drawn in by this book’s premise and the thrill ride it promised. A heist novel in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven mixed with the critique of colonialism present in The Gilded Wolves starring Asian/Asian-American protagonists? It was a match made in Asian representation heaven and I was hooked from the moment I read the premise. I requested and received an early copy from the publisher, received it, and read it. To my surprise, the book wasn’t quite what I expected: yes, there were high-octane scenes aplenty, but there were introspective moments equal in number. Several of my highlighted quotes in this novel came from the characters just pondering, rhapsodizing about their thoughts and experiences in-between the heists.
This is the main strength of a book: its character work. Portrait of a Thief, perhaps more than anything, is concerned with drawing an intimate portrait of its five very different main characters. All five of them are different, not just in personality but in their experience as Chinese or Chinese-American. Four out of five of them consider themselves Chinese-American whereas only one considers themselves only Chinese. With poetic prose, Li captures the nuances of each of these character’s individual experiences and relationship to being Chinese. Lily, for example, feels an acute distance from her Chinese roots and notably does not speak her mother tongue whereas characters like Irene and Will do speak it but still insist that they are Chinese-American. These capturing of this wide range of experience is the central strength and concern of the book, providing the backbone of the narrative.
Beyond the spectrum of Asian/Asian-American experiences presented in this novel, the relationships in this novel are painted with unexpected love and care for a story primarily concerned with anti-colonialism and art theft. Li takes great pains—even perhaps when it takes away from the thrill of the heists—to depict interpersonal relationships between our five main characters and those around them with great care. Standouts include Daniel’s relationship with his FBI-agent, art-theft expert dad and his friendship with Will. However the most well-written, pull-worthy, and unexpected relationship presented in this novel is the one between Irene and Alex, who are one of the best examples I can think of for a genuinely swoon-worthy enemies-to-lovers arc.
Through its characters, the novel encourages if not outright challenges its readers to consider hard-hitting philosophical questions and topics. Art and its procurement, illicit or not. The all-too familiar feeling of being stuck between following what you want and what is “successful” as an Asian-American. What it means to be a child of immigrants and the relationship between that child and their parents’ country of origin. Li provides abundant food for thought in this novel.
The main and only qualm I have with this novel is that especially in the early sections, it was particularly difficult to suspend my disbelief. When I mention that these characters are college students, I fully mean it: they are not prodigies nor expert thieves and much of the first part of the novel is devoted to their amateur heist preparation. This preparation—along with a handful of moments during the heists—made it slightly hard for me to truly believe what I was reading. While these moments of disbelief didn’t necessarily completely ruin the narrative for me, it was enough for me to dock a star. This novel is more about painting intimate portraits of each of its five protagonists than anything; as such, this is a minor spot in the bigger picture that is this story.
My verdict: both wonderfully deceitful and aptly titled, Portrait of a Thief is a character-centered novel from a debut author to look out for.