Go big or go home, as they say, and that’s a motto adopted by many crews on the way to a heist. After all, there’s no point in risking arrest if the payout (in cash, reputation, or revenge) won’t be worth it.
In Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief, the equation of visibility of the goods in question, the amount of money on the line, and the high probability of failure is compounded by each character’s connection—or lack thereof—to the country their parents once called home. Make enough money, and those with struggling immigrant parents can set them up for life. Fail, and the hopes and dreams of America that have been encapsulated in these stressed-out college students will be dashed.
When Will Chen witnesses a heist in the museum where he works part time, he doesn’t know what compels him to slip a bit of missed merch into his own pocket. After all, he’s just months away from graduating with his degree in art history and starting a career working in museums where his job will be to protect artifacts just like that little statuette now hidden in his apartment. He doesn’t have time to dwell on that particular question likely blooming into a full-blown existential crisis; somehow, one of the thieves slipped a business card into his pocket. Will calls, and is given the chance to form a team to pull of his own heist for a $50 million payout—and the chance to return five lost zodiac sculptures, taken from China and scattered in museums around the world, to their rightful homeland.
His sister, Irene, whose tongue might as well be made of actual silver, joins without hesitation, and brings along her roommate, Lily Wu, as a getaway driver. Will also recruits Alex Huang, who had a brief will-they-or-won’t-they with Will before dropping out of MIT to take a job at Google. Given that her premature dive into the corporate world was to help support her parents and grandparents struggling to make ends meet in New York City, Alex is wooed by the promise of her cut of the money. It’s pride, though, and years of friendship that draws in Daniel Liang, Will’s bestie from childhood who feels pulled between his love for his native land and his desire to get into medical school—and not make things worse with his dad, who also happens to be the FBI’s top expert on thefts of Chinese art.
Despite the gang being amateurs schooling themselves with YouTube videos and studious viewings of Ocean’s Eleven, they manage to pull off the first heist, in Sweden, cleanly. The next job, in Paris, gets a little more complicated. As the pattern of their thefts develops and the authorities get closer to identifying the culprits behind the heists, every member of the gang has to decide if the payout or the pride is really worth the risk.
Portrait of a Thief has all the hallmarks of a classic heist: a group of people with their own agendas overcoming differences to work toward a common goal; unforeseen complications in a fool-proof plan; romantic sparks flying between two or more members of the group; and, my favorite, the actual plan being different than the stated plan but only shown in retrospect when it looks like everything has gone horribly wrong. There is also an ultimately happy ending, of a sort, even if it’s not quite the ones the characters, or reader, envisioned. And Thief rightly questions morality vs legality; contrary to what Dr. Jones says, not everything belongs in a museum.
What sets Thief apart from the pack of heist stories is the push and pull between the characters’ shared heritage, the expectations placed upon them because of or despite that heritage, and the longing they each feel for goals that may or may not be what they’re supposed to want. Will and Irene know exactly where they came from—and exactly how much they’re supposed to achieve in this land of opportunity. Daniel doesn’t want to identify himself based on his current country of residence, but had to give up his Chinese citizenship to be a more attractive candidate for medical school. Alex is still tightly connected to her heritage to the degree that she knows she’s the vessel into which her entire extended family have poured their hopes and dreams, while Lily’s parents have so absolved her of carrying on family identity and obligation that she feels a hole where her connection to her heritage should be. Each of their relationships to China affects how they feel about their reclamation of Chinese art and history, as it should, as it would have to.
This multifaceted approach to how some members of a diaspora view heritage and provenance is a strength for many reasons, not least among them helping to dispel the idea that any person in any group can be a monolith defining the experience of all. On the other hand, it does occasionally slow the story down reading through multiple perspectives of how a single event ripples across their own personal history. The slowdown isn’t such that I think it would make readers give up on the book—the pacing is still rapid enough I finished Thief in a single sitting—but it was enough that occasionally I would flip through to gauge how long until the upcoming heist finally went down. I am likely, however, a less patient reader than many.
Overall, Thief is a solid heist novel with compelling characters and a fresh angle that knows its genre but also confidently makes its own path.