Grace D. Li’s “Portrait of a Thief” renders Cambridge in all its autumnal vibrancy. The novel’s opening pages capture the “slant of golden, late-afternoon light” at the Sackler Museum, where Harvard senior Will Chen is questioned by a detective about his role in a heist of Chinese art. That evening, Will sits in his room in Eliot House, gazing at the sky “curving around lamps that shone torch-bright.” The shimmering Charles River twists “like silver wire” through the city’s downtown. The leaves are on the cusp of changing color.
Li’s literary debut chronicles an academic year in the life of five Chinese American, college-age students: two seniors at Harvard and UCLA, two Duke juniors, and one MIT dropout. The crew, led by Will, unites to undertake a series of Chinese art heists fueled by both personal desperation and a deep-rooted desire for justice. Their goal is to steal back Chinese bronze zodiac-animal heads looted by five different Western museums. The crew — equipped with a leader, con artist, thief, hacker, and getaway driver — stealthily travels from museum to museum on a mission to repatriate the stolen art to China. Their prospective reward? $50 million.
“Portrait of a Thief” is adventurous beyond its whirlwind of a plot. Li, a current Stanford Medical School student, dares to imagine a world after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, contributing to a nascent genre of literature set in its aftermath. Her characters lived “through all that had come with” the pandemic, she writes, setting the stage for the crew’s first heist. “What could they not survive?”
Direct references to the coronavirus punctuate the novel, while its enduring legacies — Zoom calls and habitual social distancing among them — are seamlessly woven into the book’s pages. One of the protagonists reflects on the beginning of the outbreak when her immigrant parents felt “afraid of going outside because of the virus, because of the names they were called.” Another recalls being arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest after the murder of George Floyd — Li’s subtle yet meaningful nod to anti-racist solidarity between Black and Asian American communities.
Li grapples with the American Dream, recognizing the protagonists’ attempt to rescue its idealized notion from their parents’ clutches and reshape it for themselves. Reflecting on his Harvard acceptance, Will confesses “worth should not have been measured like this, in the weight of Ivy League syllables and tuition paid like an offering,” but nevertheless admits “it had been the best moment of his life.” Here, Li’s writing feels raw and vulnerable, resonating with many children of immigrants whose desperation to succeed in their family’s eyes is at odds with their quest for unconditional self-worth.
Still, the fact that all five protagonists attend universities ranked among the country’s top 20 makes it difficult to empathize with their anxiety over their futures, their feeling that the world is “on the verge of cracking open.” After all, three of them already have careers in consulting, tech, and medicine lined up, and most come from (upper) middle-class families. Li endeavors to acknowledge her characters’ privileges while still humanizing them, rightly warning of the dangers of representing the “Chinese American experience of science fairs and summer trips to Beijing or Shanghai as if it were universal.” Still, one wonders if the novel would have been more representative of diverse Chinese American experiences had Li included a broader range of educational and class backgrounds.
At times, the writing feels heavy-handed and ekphrastic. Li often gives short sentences and fragments their own lines, aiming to convey stakes that appear momentous but ultimately fall flat. “This time, it felt different,” Li writes of Will’s sketch of another character whom he finds beautiful, dramatizing a minor romantic gesture. In places like these, the writing’s all-or-nothing cadence reads like it was made for television. Fittingly, it has been optioned by Netflix for adaptation into a series, with Li serving as executive producer.
Sometimes, the sexual tension between characters feels gratuitous, something of a “Gossip Girl”-esque crew in which almost everyone has had flings with each other. But among the tangle of love triangles, Li’s inclusion of queer relationships feels especially necessary when Asian American characters are so often desexualized, barring them from further exploring their sexualities in literature and on screen.
With its unrelenting suspense and rich descriptions of New England the novel evokes Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” which similarly traces the clandestine, criminal lives of a group of elite college students. And its seamless blending of contemporary diasporic issues, cultural history, and mythology through a heist narrative also echoes Sanjena Sathian’s “Gold Diggers” — a 2021 novel that epitomizes the evolution of the Asian American literary canon beyond the stereotype of socially awkward children of immigrants seeking white acceptance.
In both “Gold Diggers” and “Portrait of a Thief,” Asian American characters are beautiful, desirable, and exist on their own terms, transcending the white gaze. Li unapologetically weaves Chinese idioms into her novel, like “拔苗助长,” rightfully refusing to provide verbatim translations (or transliterations) to unfamiliar readers. Rather, like Junot Díaz — whose writing is also partially set in Boston — Li offers context clues to convey her bilingual message.
The novel wraps too neatly when the crew finds a way to repatriate the stolen art without actually visiting all five museums. But there’s nevertheless something gratifying about justice served, especially when long overdue. In “Portrait of a Thief,” Li invites readers along for a ride in the crew’s roving getaway car, promising breathtaking vistas and, more importantly, a reckoning with colonial legacies that have long lingered in the shadows.
PORTRAIT OF A THIEF
By Grace D. Li
Tiny Reparations Books, 382 pages, $26
Meena Venkataramanan is an M.Phil. candidate in English literature at the University of Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter @mvenk82.