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.
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.
Grace D. Li grew up in Pearland, Texas and is a graduate of Duke University, where she studied biology and creative writing. She lives in Northern California and attends medical school at Stanford University. Portrait of a Thief is her debut novel and is currently in development at Netflix, with Grace serving as an executive producer for the series.
"The thefts are engaging and surprising, and the narrative brims with international intrigue. Li, however, has delivered more than a straight thriller here, especially in the parts that depict the despair Will and his pals feel at being displaced, overlooked, underestimated and discriminated against. This is as much a novel as a reckoning." - New York Times Book Review
"A heist caper...that turns on breakneck action, fast cars and a thoughtful exploration of Western colonialism and the complexities of Chinese diaspora identities." - Los Angeles Times
"Beneath its glitzy European museum settings, late-night street races, sexual tensions and a plot involving an enigmatic Chinese billionaire, Grace D. Li's debut art-heist novel, Portrait of a Thief, ...wrestles with some weighty questions about cultural repatriation and the legacy of colonial crimes." - San Francisco Chronicle
"This clever debut is an absolutely thrilling ride from start to finish." - Buzzfeed News
"A tender and tenacious art-heist story wrapped around an intimate cultural history of extraction, Portrait of a Thief is a novel that names the unsutured wounds left by the violence of immigration, xenophobia, and diasporic longing in the lives of its Asian American characters, a story of the comradery of resistance and a testament to righteous grievance." - Vulture
"You are going to want in on this one." - E! Online
"Portrait of a Thief manages to be both a gripping thriller and thoughtful exploration of Chinese American identity." - Business Insider
"Full of schemes, dreams, intrigue, chases, and the thrill of the steal, Portrait of a Thief also asks larger questions about cultural identity, repatriation, and the colonization of art. It's a thoroughly entertaining read, which is why it's not surprising that it's soon to be a Netflix series." - Al Woodworth, Amazon Editor
"Portrait of a Thief is a confident debut for Li, whose writing shows great control at the line level and of the overall narrative. Descriptions are both economic and poetic; the novel keeps a swift pace as the characters crisscross the world, from the American South to the San Francisco Bay Area, to Beijing and Europe. It's easy to see why Netflix was so quick to nab TV rights for the book." - KQED
"This is an entertaining read that has fun with familiar ideas while still managing to give them interesting twists." - BookRiot
"A cinematic heist thriller with a social conscience...vivid and precisely crafted." - BookPage
"Fascinating...Li composes gracefully, and her polyphonic quintet is especially convincing as each considers motivations, generational debts, hybrid identities, and complicated on-the-cusp adult relationships." - Booklist