*Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Portrait of a Thief is an ambitious debut novel by Grace D. Li that follows a group of Chinese American college students who aim to pull off the heist of a century. Their goal is to help China recover art that was looted from its ancestral country due to war, conquest, and colonialism. Inspired by a true story of Chinese art vanishing from Western museums, Portrait of a Thief is a tale about the Chinese American identity and what it means to be a young adult from an immigrant family.
The novel begins from the perspective of Will Chen, a senior at Harvard University who is being interviewed as a witness for a recent break-in at a museum in Boston. After being questioned by the police, it is revealed that Will had swiped an artifact during the chaos of the actual theft at the museum and was approached by the original thieves to become part of a movement to steal back long-lost art that was first stolen from China. Offered an opportunity of a lifetime including fifty million dollars, Will gathers a a team of students to pull off an impossible heist. The crew consists of Irene Chen, Will’s “I can do anything you can do better” sister, Daniel Liang, a Chinese immigrant whose father is an FBI agent, Lily Wu who’s into illegal street racing, and Alex Huang, the hacker who insists that she’s not a hacker. This completely inexperienced and unprofessional group of young adults are then tasked to rob five museums across Europe and America to steal five sculptures that were taken from a colonial conquest of Beijing’s Summer Palace.
Although the book is marketed as a heist novel that is like Ocean’s Eleven meets Fast & Furious, that is unfortunately a lie. Li attempts to tackle multiple complex topics under the guise of a heist novel that fails to deliver. There are mentions of diaspora (settlement outside your ancestral lands), colonialization of art, the Chinese American Identity, and the expectations placed on children of immigrant families to achieve the American Dream. While the ambition to cover these topics is praiseworthy, the execution was poor. Li offers a superficial view on these topics through repetitive lyrical writing through the five points of view from the students.
There are characters who are meant to portray the Chinese American identity and the Chinese immigrant identity, but Li only gives a one-dimensional look into these identities. She does not acknowledge that there are huge differences in experiences between all Chinese Americans depending on where they grew up in. For example, there will be a huge difference in perspectives from an American Born Chinese growing up on the West Coast versus East Coast. As such, there will also be huge differences in experience between those who immigrate to the U.S. from China depending on where they go. Instead, Grace tries to convince readers that all Chinese Americans, no matter their origins and upbringing will have similar experiences including an innate need to idolize China.
Two of these characters even admit they have never been to China until they were approached with the heist idea, yet it is written in every single character’s voice they want to please China, receive acknowledgement from the mother country, and feel a sense of belonging there despite knowing the bloody and harrowing history of why their own families came to America in the first place. It’s never fully explained or shown why these characters hold these sentiments other than “diaspora.” There is even a passage where Irene sings about Mao and Communism to Alex’s sick grandmother, a character who escaped to Hong Kong to seek refuge from the Communist Party during the Chinese Civil War. There is a severe lack of awareness within these characters when they believe a survivor who ran away from a dictator would appreciate hearing music praising said dictator on their death bed. The ignorance is made even worse when it becomes clear the entire novel takes place in the present day based on mentions of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. Yet, there’s no acknowledgement of any of the ongoing issues related to China that is currently happening, instead every chapter notes that China has a beautiful sky. In addition to political ignorance, the novel is also riddled with inconsistencies and unclear references to Mandarin and Cantonese. For example, there are Chinese characters used in the novel without any proper translations or context and incorrect use of Mandarin names for Canton characters.
The story constantly gets bogged down by far too many mentions of the Ivy League schools the students attend and the their complaints about their privileged lifestyles, which are topped with pretentious monologues in every chapter. The focus on these issues take away from the believability of the heists, as the students find themselves worrying about whether graduate school at another Ivy League or the Wall Street life is their next move, instead of how they should be escaping the museum they’re currently in while the security alarms are going off.
Excluding Daniel Liang’s character, no one outgrows their own delusions or learns anything in the novel. There is zero character growth, zero stakes involved even during times that should have been thrilling, zero planning into the heist, and zero consequences for these kids even when they do get caught. While it is expected for a fiction novel to require a certain level of suspension of belief to enjoy the story, Portrait of a Thief is regrettably an overstuffed melodramatic story of five very privileged students grappling with the existential crisis of what happens after graduating college.