There are books where I read knowing exactly what to expect: the type of feelings it will make me feel, the kind of story that it will tell.
And then there’s “Portrait of a Thief,” Grace D. Li’s debut novel that immediately hit me in the face with emotions I didn’t know I was capable of feeling.
The book tells the story of five Chinese Americans in their early 20s forming a heist commissioned by a mysterious Chinese company to steal back looted artwork from Western museums. Each of them has a distinct role in this heist: Will, the leader; his sister Irene, the con artist; their childhood friend Daniel, the thief; Irene’s roommate Lily, the getaway driver; and Will’s freshman year Tinder date Alex, the hacker. (Yeah, that last one is a surprising connection.)
And that setup sounds really fun, right? This is going to be a super silly, fun time, right?
See, each of these five characters has a different and complicated relationship with their Chinese identities. Will and Irene are children of upper middle class immigrants, both going to top-30 universities. Daniel came to the US as a child when his mother got sick. Lily was never even taught Mandarin by her parents, who wanted to assimilate as much as possible. Alex grew up in Chinatown in New York, living above the restaurant her Cantonese grandparents started.
And as the heist progresses and they face the gravity of their actions, these characters have to confront their life experiences head-on. Long story short, this results in a lot of very heavy feelings about very heavy ideas. How do you connect with your culture when it’s so far away from you? What is the cost of righting this wrong of colonialism? What does it mean to be Chinese and American?
Amidst all this, none of them really know what they’re doing with their lives, or if they do know, they don’t like it. (As it tends to go when you’re about 21 years old.) They reckon with love and loss, navigating their relationships with the world, their families and each other, all while trying to rob several high-security art museums.
I once again find myself at a loss for how to describe a book. How can a 600-word review do justice to Li’s lyrical prose and immense storytelling prowess? How can I possibly mention everything I loved about the way this story was told?
“Portrait of a Thief” hit me in places I wasn’t aware I could be hit. It developed these characters so well that I’m stunned they’re not real people I know. It made me absolutely terrified for the end of college. It ignited in me a sense of pure, unadulterated, diasporic pain, a yearning for something more that I’m too scared to think about, and then soothed it like a warm cup of jasmine tea.
When I was in high school, I always tried to distance myself from being Chinese. I didn’t join any of the STEM clubs that all my Chinese American peers were in. I mostly spoke in English to my parents. I cooked American meals for myself when we didn’t have any leftovers.
And I can’t help but think that maybe, if I’d had this book, if I’d read this story that gives the complexity of Chinese American identity so much care and consideration, things would’ve been different. At least a little.
“Portrait of a Thief” comes out on April 5, 2022. All my thanks go to the publisher, Tiny Reparations Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House), for the early copy in exchange for this mess of a review.
(Also, I cannot end this review without mentioning the sapphic romance. It lingers in the background until you least expect it, and it is everything.)