When I started to read “Portrait of a Thief,” Grace D. Li’s M.D. ’23 debut novel, I was expecting tales of ski masks, getaway cars and run-ins with the police. All of this was there in spades, but the part of this book that stuck with me was the deep exploration of the Asian American experience. Li writes of wanting something intangible, of connections to unseen foreign lands and of trying to honor immigrant parents.
Inspired by the true story of a spree of heists beginning in 2010, the novel follows five college students hired by a Chinese benefactor to steal five priceless sculptures from various art museums and return them to China, where they were stolen centuries before. If they succeeded, the group would be awarded 5 million dollars: enough to pay off their student debts, family medical bills and ultimately secure their futures.
The novel varies in narration, talking from the perspectives of all five members of the heist crew. It is evident where the author finds herself in her characters: Li grew up in Texas like Lily, went to Duke like Irene, and is now at the Stanford School of Medicine like Daniel. And still these characters are fully fleshed out, with different relations to their Chinese heritage. Daniel immigrated with his parents as a child, Will and Irene spent summers in China with family while growing up, Alex grew up above her grandparents’ New York Chinatown restaurant and Lily had little connection to China. Together, they paint a mosaic of Chinese American experiences.
Starting in the fall, the story winds through college campuses as the crew members get closer to their impending graduation and the real world. The novel is seductive, drawing readers in with stories of beautiful people, expensive art and first-class flights. But beneath the glitz, this is a story of desire and youth; the responsibility to honor parents’ struggles and make parents’ sacrifices worthwhile; and the qualms of college students on the precipice of the real world, searching for a path that will fulfill them and the question of home, especially for the children of immigrants. Li weaves these themes through the novel, drilling in (sometimes excessively) the search for more.
“China was many things — traffic and mountains and the brush of ink over paper, emperors and innovation and the heavy hand of an authoritarian government — but she would never call it foreign.”
The world Li builds is cinematic: blue dawns and golden sunrises and long sentences packed with moments. It seems that Hollywood agrees, as Netflix has already claimed the TV rights to the novel. The writing is dramatic, reading almost like a screenplay: you know where the scene would cut and the lights would go dark.
“As the light changed outside his window, fall swirling soft and golden around him, Will thought — as he always did — of history.
It was made in moments like this.”
The romances unfold naturally, sometimes unexpectedly, and the friendships and familial relationships are just as complex. Specifically, the novel dives into the repairing of Daniel’s relationship with his distant father, split apart by the grief they both carry for his late mother. Love is Daniel’s father pouring his tea, setting his place at the table, being home on time. The pair share silent dinners and the desire to form strong connections, the two of them not knowing how to bridge their divide.
We see the strong sibling bond of Irene and Will: how proud they are of each other, even while they still feel subpar in comparison. And moment after moment between the various college students, glances and lingering leading to stomach flutters and questions, questions, questions.
Li’s novel is a love letter to the Chinese American experience, and one cannot stop turning the pages and diving further into the pull of crimes, luxury and college-age romance. The writing is beautiful, the characters are beautiful, the story is seductive. The sophistication of the narrative is far beyond debut novel level, and it will certainly be exciting to read Li’s future work.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.