By: Tory Tanguay
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.
Want to read something for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month? Then read Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li. This debut novel by Li is a inspired by the all too common practice of colonizing art from China (it should be noted that this occurs with other countries too), what it means to be Chinese-American, and what it’s like to feel your heart pulled in two different directions when it comes to calling a place home.
“History is told by the conquerors” the book jacket’s synopsis begins. Art from China has been stolen from over the years and placed in museums all over the world, colonization of art if you will. Which leads to the question (and indeed part of the basis of the book), what should happen to these stolen pieces of art? Should they stay where they are or return to their country of origin? (Considering I’ve been listening to a lot of history podcasts recently that mention repatriation of art and artifacts, I was intrigued by this premise.)
The novel follows five young, Chinese-American adults as they near the end of their college lives or come to a turning point in their career. We meet Will Chen first, being interviewed by police after a group of thieves breaks into the Sackler Museum where he works. The unknown group of thieves steal a bunch of priceless Chinese art and Will is intrigued. Soon he is approached with an offer he can’t refuse; form a crew and steal back five zodiac heads from museums all around the world for China. He recruits his sister, Irene, the con-artist; his long-time friend, Daniel Liang, the thief; former flame, Alex Huang, the hacker; and Irene’s roommate, Lily Wu, the getaway driver. The book bounces between each protagonist’s point of view but it’s easy to follow the overall plot and each character adds their own version of the events going on.
Once the plans for each heist begin, this is where the book lost me a little. It is very clear that this group of friends have absolutely no idea what they’re doing in plotting and carrying out a major crime. They perform research by watching heist movies such as “Ocean’s Eleven” and “The Fast and the Furious”. Because why not? We all know those movies are truly realistic. While they do perform some research on critical items, such as map layouts of the museums, how long security takes to respond, getaway routes, etc. most of their planning isn’t truly hidden from potential prying eyes. They plan via text messages (not encrypted) and Google docs (I kid you not). As you continue reading you realize, this may have been intentional but overall I just lose the ability to sink myself into the story due to a “lack of realism.” Yes, I realize this is a fictional work but still.
I gave this book 4/5 stars because while it’s still enjoyable, it isn’t very practical. Maybe that’s just me expecting too much out of a novel but oh well. While I realize that most people aren’t going to know how to successfully pull off an art heist (I’d be really impressed with an author who did) I feel like it could have been made to be slightly more believable. However, as mentioned before, maybe that was the point. I also wish there was a little more variety in perspectives of the protagonists and a little more delving into the idea of what it means to be from two different cultures and how that relates to the desire of obtaining “The American Dream.” All in all, a good debut novel by Li, but maybe not great.