Inspired by the true story of a string of thefts at Western museums, where the only objects stolen were those initially looted from China, author Grace D. Li weaves a tale that brings together five Chinese American college-age youth on a mission in “Portrait of a Thief.” In this fast-paced novel, the friends have one goal: to steal back art that was once stolen from China.
The crew, each of whom arrives on the heist team with a particular set of skills – a street racer, a computer whiz, an art historian, a charmer and the son of an art crimes investigator – are also brought together by a shared background as part of the Chinese American diaspora. Each of them brings their own complicated relationship to the fraught history between East and West, and the ways these relationships play out through the novel give the story its immense amount of heart.
Li playfully brings together the best of heists in the vein of “Ocean’s Eleven” and elevates the caper with a geopolitical reckoning that interrogates the role of art, ownership and ancestry. The book, released in early April, is already slated for an upcoming Netflix adaptation. There are hints of romance and spectacular cityscapes that come alive as the crew navigates the globe in hopes of successfully pulling off their mission. On the line for each of them is ten million dollars or a future in prison, and how they each grapple with the disconnect between the bright futures their families have mapped out for them and those they wish to claim for themselves sustains the novel through its final pages.
The novel debuted to incredible fanfare, appearing as an instant New York Times’ bestseller and named a Barnes & Noble’s Discover Pick.