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.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review & can confirm all thoughts and opinions are my own.
I think this may be the best book I’ve read this year so far! Yes. I said it. Portrait of a Thief was so far from my normal reads, but I couldn’t help but get enveloped in this world of heists, colonialism, diaspora and astoundingly real characters. Will Chen didn’t really know what to expect when, in the middle of a robbery of the museum he was working in, one of the culprits snuck a business card into his suit. He definitely doesn’t expect the person on the end of the line to invite him to Beijing where they offer him and his friends 50 million dollars to return stolen Chinese art from museums around the world. Will, Irene, Daniel, Alex and Lily are all children of China in one way or another, none really knowing where they fit into this world, but they find the money, and with it, the chance to return priceless cultural artefacts too good to pass up. The only problem, none of them are professional thieves in any way, and as much as they stand to gain, the stand to loose even more if their plans fail.
It only took me a handful of pages before I knew I would love this book. Everything from the authors writing style to the characters was incredibly well done, and I found it nearly impossible to put the book down. Told from the POV’s of our five thieves; Will Chen, the leader of this unlikely gang and studying to become an Art Historian at Harvard. Irene Chen, Will’s younger sister is the face of the team. The one able to talk anyone into, or out of anything. Daniel Liang is the insider. A premed student with a father in the FBI, Daniel knows more about art theft than anyone else in the team, and his steady hands come in hand for lock picking and the like. Alex Huang sold her soul to work in Silicone Valley so she could support her family, the perfect hacker. Lily Wu, an engineer who races cars in her spare time, a getaway driver if there ever was one. Every single one of these characters is a child of China in some way or another, some growing up there, others travelling to visit family and some never having visited before. But they all find themselves stuck in between, never quite belonging, never American or Chinese enough to fit into to one place.
Li does such a brilliant job of bringing to light the feelings of diaspora within our characters. They are all fighting inner battles about their culture, where they belong, and as much as this is a heist story, it’s also a story about 5 adults finding themselves in a world that doesn’t really know where to place them. It’s bizarre to think that breaking the law can fix people, but that’s exactly what this book shows. Their plans and goals to bring stolen art back to their cultural home makes them all question parts within themselves: Daniel whose family only moved to America to try & save his mothers life, and who resents his father for making them stay and putting America above China. Lily who had never been to China, let alone know which province her family came from. Stealing this art, knowing why they are doing it, while at first makes them angry, by the end almost heals something within them all, and it truly is a fantastic journey to read.
You may read this and think you know where the story is going and you would be 100% wrong. By around 50% I thought I had it. I could see where the story was going, even if I didn’t think it would be a happy ending, but Li had something else in store for us. Her plot twists are truly brilliant, and make the ending of the story that much more fulfilling and special. This as well as her writing style ensures you stay completely engrossed in the story, desperate for our characters to succeed and find themselves in the process. I laughed, I cried and at times I was on the edge of my seat, but Li makes sure no single word is wasted in this story & I can’t tell you how many different sections I highlighted because of the beauty of the writing, as well as the effect it had on me whilst reading.
I’m obviously not someone who can comment on this from experience but, from what I have read and seen in the media/ books./ films etc, Li does a a fantastic job of showing Chinese culture. The weight of expectations that lies on the younger generations to not only do well in life, but to also provide for their families. How certain characters have had to give up on their dreams to provide for their families and, while she shows no resentment for this, she also shows how if given the freedom to make different choices, some of them would. As well as this she shows their anger and resentment of the western world, a world that is never quite ready to accept them even generations after living there, somewhere that appropriates their culture and history and tries to make it it’s own while glossing over the true facts of how it got there. You can understand the anger and the fear and resentment they feel, and I couldn’t help but empathise with them throughout the story.
Portrait of a Thief may be far from my usual reads but it’s a story that readers from all backgrounds will enjoy and find parts of themselves in. Perfect for fans of character driven stories, where the characters are far from perfect, but you desperately want them to succeed all the same. It’s witty, exciting and emotional all in one, and I will eagerly be anticipating anything else Li writes.