Portrait of a thief A novel

Grace D. Li

Book - 2022

"Ocean's Eleven" meets "The Farewell" in this 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 seni...or 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 pre-med 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. -- Provided by publisher.

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Subjects
Genres
Detective and mystery fiction
Thrillers (Fiction)
Novels
Romans
Published
New York : Tiny Reparations Books [2022]
Language
English
Physical Description
375 pages ; 24 cm
ISBN
9780593184738
0593184734
Main Author
Grace D. Li (author)
Review by Booklist Reviews

Long before the first alarms are triggered here, renowned museums have been legal showcases for artful plunder: Nefertiti's Bust in Berlin's Neues Museum, the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, the Koh-i-Noor in the Tower of London. Li's fascinating albeit uneven debut zeros in on one treasure, China's Old Summer Palace fountain comprised of the Chinese zodiac's dozen animals. Five of the bronze heads are missing. In a Beijing penthouse, five Chinese American college students (one's actually a dropout) get hired by China's youngest billionaire to retrieve the bronzes for a reward of $50-million. Harvard art-history senior Will gets tapped as leader. His "heist crew" couldn't be more promising: his sister Irene (Duke, public policy) as con artist; his best friend Daniel (med school-bound UCLA senior) as thief; his Tinder-hookup Alex (ex-MIT, gone to Google) as hacker; Irene's roommate Lily (Duke, mechanical engineering) as getaway driver. Li composes gracefully, and her polyphonic quintet is especially convincing as each considers motivations, generational debts, hybrid identities, and complicated on-the-cusp adult relationships. The to-be-expected navel-gazing, alas, repeats and lingers, dulling Li's brilliant ending. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

A Chinese American art history major at Harvard, Will Chen passionately believes that art belongs with its creators. So when a Chinese corporation asks him to surreptitiously reclaim five valuable sculptures stolen from China centuries previously, he organizes an all Chinese American crew to execute the heist. They include Will's can-con-anyone sister Irene, at Duke; premed student Daniel, whose FBI agent father specializes in art crimes; engineering student Lily, who races cars in her spare time (handy for getaways); and Alex, Will's former beloved, who found her way to Silicon Valley after dropping out of MIT. A debut from Stanford medical student Li; soon to be a Netflix series. Copyright 2021 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Li debuts with an intriguing if uneven twist on the heist genre. Harvard art history student Will Chen witnesses a brazen smash-and-grab at his school's museum; the thieves make off with objects that were themselves stolen from China centuries before. In the chaos, Will pockets a jade figure. One of the thieves spies his move, calling it a "nice lift," and slips him the business card of a Chinese business mogul, Wang Yuling, who later recruits Will into the world of art theft. Will soon assembles a group of Chinese Americans in their early 20s, including his younger sister, Irene; and Daniel Liang, who grew up in Beijing and comes primed with knowledge gleaned from his art thief–busting father, who works for the FBI. The inexperienced team agrees to steal five Chinese zodiac fountainhead pieces in exchange for $50 million from Yuling. The first heist, in Sweden, is a success, but during the second theft in France, competition arises when another gang gets to the target first. Li smartly focuses on the bonds created in the group over their shared Chinese roots, though occasionally floundering prose ("The night was dark as an oil spill") tends to pockmark the page. Like a popcorn movie, this is best enjoyed with a hearty suspension of disbelief. Agent: Hannah Fergesen, KT Literary. (Apr.) Copyright 2022 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

"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"--

Review by Publisher Summary 2

A Chinese American art history major at Harvard, Will Chen is offered a (very illegal) chance to reclaim five priceless treasures China lost centuries ago and assembles a team of fellow students, chosen for their skills and loyalty, to help him on his mission—and make history.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERNamed A Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by *Marie Claire* *Washington Post* *Vulture* *NBC News*  *Buzzfeed* *Veranda* *PopSugar* *Paste* *The Millions* *Bustle* *Crimereads* Goodreads* *Bookbub* *Boston.com* and more!"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 ReviewOcean'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.