This Debut Novel Will Steal You Away

There are so many reasons to love Grace D. Li’s debut novel Portrait of a Thief.  It’s a heist novel, and a story of college students taking their first steps post-graduation. It’s about Chinese-American identity, family, and reconciliation, it’s about romances old and new, but most of all it is fun – a book which deserves the Netflix deal Li signed to turn her book into a series.

It could be a stay-up-far-too-late-to-finish kind of book because of its quick pacing, but Li provides enough emotional balance to the action that you won’t feel guilty about the indulgence.  You will care about the cast of amateur bandits and learn about the history of art they are planning to steal (I won’t spoil things here by telling you how successful they are in their thievery). 

Their ringleader, Will Chen, is studying art history at Harvard when he is approached by a Chinese billionaire who will pay him fifty million dollars to steal five bronze sculptures representing animals of the zodiac from the Western art galleries where they are on display.  Looted by British and French soldiers from the Old Summer Palace during the Opium Wars, the artist and art historian in Will is motivated by the opportunity to repatriate these meaningful and breathtaking statues.

He builds a crew which is something like a university-aged Ocean’s Eleven, making the book so much fun to read, but with a touch of anxiety also mixed in.  It’s a constant worry that they will get caught!  His pick for a con artist is his sister Irene, a public policy major from Duke.  She is beautiful and brilliant but sibling rivalry could get in the way during a caper on this scale.  Pre-med student and childhood best friend Daniel Liang is their expert thief and lockpicker, but he has a romantic history with Irene so bringing him on has potential for failure.  Romance could become a trigger for Will with Alex Huang, his choice for the team’s ‘hacker’ and a successful software engineer at a Silicon Valley tech giant (they met on Tinder), however he is developing a crush on Lily Wu, their getaway driver and a mechanical engineering major with incredible street racing skills.  As they try to focus on their studies, work, and flying to locations like The Drottingham and Le château de Fontainebleau on the weekends to plot their crimes, their chemistry as a team develops.   

Li balances the constant tension of planning and executing the daring thefts by allowing each of the characters to voice their own chapters.  Will, Irene, and Daniel grew up together as neighbours in Santa Clara Valley after Daniel and his father came to the U.S. from China hoping an experimental medical treatment would save his mother. Alex’s family lived above their Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of New York City, and Irene grew up in a small town in Texas with parents who left China before she was born and never returned to visit or encouraged her to learn the language of their birth.  As each of the ‘crew’ narrate their experience and find their own reason to return the sculptures to China, their complicated relationships with identity and belonging become clearer.  As we learn of their hopes for the future – Daniel is attending interviews for med school in between their international trips, Irene is chosen for a prestigious internship, and Will hopes to be hired at the Met (how will he explain a history of international art crime in that interview?) – the risk they are taking to even plan these crimes ratchets up the tension. 

All of the elements of a good caper are present in this novel; street races in shiny cars, heart pounding chases through darkened streets, blaring police sirens and museum alarms, and clever tricks to hoodwink the authorities. However, its real strength is in the quiet conversations and connections between the members of the crew.  Portrait of a Thief is a thrill ride packed with intelligence and five characters you cannot help but love.

If you’re looking to add to your to-be-read-next list, check out the books in our staff-curated Asian Voices reading list!