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 Thiefis a cultural heist and an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary critique of the lingering effects of colonialism.
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.
This is probably the saddest review I have to write because I had such high expectations for Portrait of a Thief. While I know this book may not have been written with every audience in mind, I feel I am one of those this was meant to excite. I feel I am one of those whose thoughts should hopefully matter as I navigate the complex feelings this book has sprung out of me.
I am Chinese Canadian and this book about the diaspora of Chinese immigrants across the Western world is, well, me.
Like most of the characters we follow in this heist crew, I was born in a Western society with only parental roots tying me back to my mother country. Yet my own complex relationship with China is not quite what any of these students feel. While many have praised the different voices or feelings each character wrestled with for their reasons to take on a heist job for China, I personally feel they were mostly one-note and the same. All their internal conflict, and oh boy was the book full of the same conflict for each character, was about escaping their prison-like futures weighed down with expectations and familial responsibilities, and not quite belonging to either country.
I can see that. I witness it sometimes in myself when I’m overseas and a person in China can immediately guess I am not from there simply from the way I dress and behave even if I speak Chinese to them. I also know that no matter I was born in Canada, people will see me and I will always be ‘other’ in some way, no matter that my English is perfect. But I don’t think it’s so simplified in the same way for every child of immigrants in this diaspora to feel so lost that it leads to the risk of a lifetime. I mean, the book wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t all felt drawn to such a risk worth taking, but it was hard to swallow after the 50th chapter mentioning the internal conflict in some form as they continued to take risk after risk to the point beyond recklessness for a country that also wasn’t quite fully theirs either.
Out of the 5 protagonists, I resonated most closely with Alex. Note aside, she has the same name as one of my good friends so that was a fun thing to see in a book. But it makes me question a little why I connected with her the most. Is it because she’s the only one who is Cantonese with a background from Hong Kong?
This is another thing the book doesn’t do well in. My family is from Hong Kong and it has a very different, even more complex, relationship with China. It’s probably another reason why I was so torn with the internal conflict of these students because it’s never addressed although Alex is so very much here. Even with her last name written in this way, Huang instead of Wong, she could’ve just been another Mandarin-speaking student and I wouldn’t have known the difference if her Cantonese family wasn’t mentioned. Why is that? It makes me wonder why nothing more was ever specified. Why include it then at all? It adds to the similarity of all these students which don’t represent the vast diaspora of Chinese immigrants. And I speak this from experience.
The story could’ve been saved with the levity that complex heists and creative escape plans might have brought with it. Yet this book is very much focused only on the identity struggle of the protagonists and not so much on the actual risks they are taking. It made the story drag as the heists were more an afterthought than any focus at all. I wouldn’t have minded it, in fact, I was warned that was the case. But I needed the levity for my own heart’s struggle and it just wasn’t there. I could barely swallow several chapters at a time because it was so heavy, and each student’s grief over their future and their identity was so dominant. The chapters aren’t even long yet I felt every one last half a lifetime.
The interpersonal relationships between all of them were also lacking. There were no feelings that jumped out of the page beyond what the words were telling me to feel. Will felt something that perhaps was more than his usual affair with Lily, but I never understood why that was. What made their interaction more special? Was it because they were planning a heist together with the added adrenaline thrown into the mix? The sapphic relationship also felt thrown out of left field because I never understood how it grew to love when all we’ve ever been given was the hate. It wasn’t even enemies-to-lovers done well.
And now we circle back to how I feel at the end of all of this. Portrait of a Thief was one of my most anticipated books, one I predicted I would love so much. It physically hurts that it’s not the case because I thought this book was written for someone like me. On a subject that was important and meant to be seen. Maybe it’s all too personal to me which is why it didn’t work out. Maybe I have too many connections to the history, to the countries, to the struggle for it to have ever worked out.
I’m left with questions I can only reflect to myself as I read each characters’ own questions. Would I have risked it all for a country that doesn’t fully accept me either? Would doing something as big as taking back power in the form of art be enough to make me belong? I’m not sure the answer is ever easy or so simple to make. It doesn’t even have to relate to heists and art, but simply this question: what lengths would I go to to feel like I belong in the freedom of all that I am?
And the fact that these college students wrestled so much with their futures to want to run from it, and very great futures at that with the privilege of attending the greatest universities in America that only some of us can ever hope to achieve, made me wonder if there’s something off with me for never having such a thought cross my mind with the expectations placed on the eldest child of an immigrant family who left it all behind for a greater chance in a different country.
Yes, this review is very introspective, and it’s not the usual take I have for books. But this book was written for me in many ways that most books are not. And perhaps the pain of not liking it at all is only amplified for that very reason.
Honestly, I can’t write a good TL;DR for Portrait of a Thief. If you want to know my thoughts, please read the entirety of it because it’s way too complex to put into a pithy summary. This is my history, this is my identity, and this book wrecked in me in a way I didn’t expect it to.