Originally published in 2022
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.
It will likely come as little surprise to many of you, particularly those well-versed in my love of inverted crime stories, that I also have a great appreciation for heist stories. Whether the job is big or small, there is something inherently entertaining in watching a group of characters – often from quite different backgrounds – come together to plan and execute a crime. Particularly when those characters inevitably mess up, go off script or face an unexpected obstacle or three that will make them have to adjust those carefully laid plans on the fly.
Portrait of a Thief, like many heist stories, is first and foremost a lot of fun. It gives the reader all the story beats they might expect from the genre such as those temporary setbacks and fallings out between the group as well as moments of action, romance and suspense. In addition to the fun however it is also a thoughtful, provocative work that addresses serious questions about colonialism, cultural identity and the need to belong.
Will Chen, an art history student at Harvard, is approached by a woman who offers him a lucrative but seemingly impossible job. She wants him to steal five priceless sculptures looted from China centuries earlier and now located in museums across the globe.
He won’t have to do it alone. He quickly assembles a crew, each member contributing their own special skills to the operation whether that be hacking, driving or sleight of hand. They all hope to get their cut of a fifty million dollar payment should they succeed but several have their own personal reasons for getting involved too which range from the practical to the ideological.
One of the things I loved most about Portrait of a Thief was the sense that though these five characters share some similarities in aspects of their backgrounds, they possess very distinct personalities and concerns. Indeed one of the most interesting things about the book are the range of perspectives we encounter on how each character feels about their American and Chinese identities, reflected both in their motivations for getting involved but also how they intend to live when the job is done. This not only enriches some of the book’s thematic discussions, it also reinforces that these characters are individuals who have had quite different life experiences from each other.
This book digs deep into the lives of these five young people, exploring what has motivated them to get involved as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future. While some begin the book as strangers to one another, several already have connections to one another at the start of the story while other links develop as it goes on. The author does a splendid job of portraying how those relationships slowly evolve and are shaped by the common experience of plotting this heist, and I appreciate that several of those relationships feel really quite deep and meaningful by the end of the novel.
While I liked all five members of the team, the one I found to be the most interesting was Daniel, the only labeled as ‘the thief’ in the blurb. What drew me most to this character is his fascinating personal history and his complex relationship with his father who, as the world’s leading expert on Chinese artwork, is set up to be in opposition to our heroes for a substantial part of the story. I really enjoyed learning more about those characters and their uncomfortable relationship and by the end of the novel I felt particularly invested in what the outcome to that plot thread would be.
The idea that lies at the heart of the novel is that there are many cultural artefacts in the hands of public and private museums that are there because of theft, looting or other illegal trades. The pieces that the team are being commissioned to steal and return to China are pieces of great cultural significance, having originally been displayed as a set, and so for Will at least this is about righting an injustice and it seems to be presented almost as a sense of duty for him.
I found the discussions of those ideas to be quite thoughtful, particularly some opinions voiced toward the end of the novel, and I once again appreciated that the author offers us a range of views not only on the specific matter of ownership but also on the relationships between objects and the cultures from which they were created or developed.
The development of the characters and the themes the novel discusses are closely intertwined with that of the book’s exciting heist storyline. As problems occur we see the different members of the group interact and read how they respond to those central questions about identity and belonging. Often their personalities become clearer in how they react to those adversities, with problems prompting conflicts and introspection. Li does a great job of finding a strong balance between the exciting heist elements and those quieter, character-driven moments.
While I found the result to be both engaging and provocative, there were a couple of elements that were less successful for me. The first were the car racing scenes which felt a little disconnected from the rest of the action and only added to the sense that the action could become rather too slick in places. They are certainly quite exciting and yet they do seem to distract from the other elements of the heist at times.
Perhaps a bigger challenge is the credibility of Will and his friends being approached in the first place. I tried to consider what might prompt a wealthy Chinese woman to hire someone with no practical experience and expect them to pull off a truly difficult job.
My biggest question though left at the end of the novel is pretty simple: why, when we are exploring the lives and desires of all five members, is the title in the singular. It seems quite odd and it makes me wonder which of the characters the portrait is intended to be of.
The Verdict: This entertaining and provocative heist story mixes some enteratining action with some thoughtful development of ideas, and does both brilliantly.