If you’re looking for a novel full of heists, travel and exploration of Chinese American identity, then look no further than Portrait of a Thief. This thrilling tale follows Will, a Harvard student comfortably living in his carefully curated role, but when asked to pull together a team to heist five priceless paintings stolen from Beijing centuries prior, he finds himself the leader of the crew, with fifty million dollars and their futures on the line. It’s the perfect novel to escape into!
Longlisted for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize
Named A Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by *Marie Claire* *Washington Post* *Vulture* *NBC News* *Buzzfeed* *Veranda* *PopSugar* *Paste* *The Millions* *Bustle* *Crimereads* Goodreads* *Bookbub* *Boston.com* and more!
"The thefts are engaging and surprising, and the narrative brims with international intrigue. Li, however, has delivered more than a straight thriller here, especially in the parts that depict the despair Will and his pals feel at being displaced, overlooked, underestimated and discriminated against. This is as much a novel as a reckoning."
—New York Times Book Review
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.
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 Thief is a cultural heist and an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary critique of the lingering effects of colonialism.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
State your name for the record, please."
This was how things began: Boston on the cusp of fall, the Sackler Museum robbed of twenty-three pieces of priceless Chinese art. Even in the museum's back room, dust catching the slant of golden, late-afternoon light, Will could hear the sirens. They sounded like a promise.
"And what were you doing at the Sackler Museum, Mr. Chen?"
"I work here part-time. I'm an art history student at Harvard."
"Did you see anything unusual before the theft?"
"Describe what you saw during the incident. Any distinguishing features of the thieves, anything the security cameras might not have caught."
"It all happened very fast. I looked up from my essay and the alarms were going off. When I ran into the exhibit, they were already leaving. They had on ski masks, black clothes." He hesitated, just for a moment. "I think they were speaking Chinese."
For a moment, the only sound was the scratch of the detective's pen against his notepad. "I see. Do you speak Chinese, Mr. Chen?"
"Yes, I-does it matter? I couldn't really make out what they were saying. The alarms were going off at this point."
"Of course. And do you know what they stole?"
Will thought back to the empty room. If he closed his eyes, he could fit the pieces back where they were supposed to go-a pair of jade tigers, a dragon vase. A jade cup with three crested bronze birds, midflight. "Not really. I've been gone all summer."
The detective slid a sheet of paper across the table. "Can you read the title of this for me?"
It was a printout from the Harvard Crimson, from late August. Will swallowed hard. "'What Is Ours Is Not Ours: Chinese Art and Western Imperialism.'"
"Did you write this?"
The detective leaned forward, his fingertips touching. "Tell me if this sounds suspicious to you: A Chinese student writes an article about looted art, and a few weeks later, Harvard's largest collection of Asian art is robbed. All the priceless pieces mentioned in the article-gone."
Will leaned back in his chair. The golden light made everything feel like a painting, and he let his mind drift for a moment, thinking of the paper on Renaissance art that was due next week, the sculpture he still had to finish for his portfolio. "Not particularly."
"And why is that?"
"I was born in the US, Detective . . ." Will looked for a badge, a name.
"What is your-"
"I'm Chinese American," Will said, lingering on the American. He adjusted the rolled-up cuff of his button-down, imagining how his sister would handle this situation. "You said I was Chinese. But I was born and raised in the US, just like you, and I work part-time at the Sackler, and three weeks ago the Crimson published a paper I wrote for an art history class at Harvard. Last time I checked, none of those are crimes. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have homework to do."
"This is procedure, Mr. Chen. I just have a few more questions, if you will-"
Will rose. It might have been a small thing, to be called Chinese instead of Chinese American, to have this detective who spoke in a Boston accent look at him as if this place, this museum, this art didn't belong to him, but-it didn't feel like a small thing. Not when he was at Harvard, this place of dreams, and he was so close to everything he had ever wanted.
It was his senior year, and the whole world felt on the verge of cracking open.
"I've told you everything I know," he said, "and I know my rights. Next time you want to accuse me of something, go through my lawyer."
In Eliot House, with his window open to the warm evening air and the distant sound of chatter in the courtyard, Will took a single jade tiger out of his pocket. The stone was cool, almost cold against his skin. It shone in the halfway light, the jade a pale, almost translucent green, with veins of reddish-brown at the tiger's head and tail. Despite the centuries, the edges of the carving were sharp enough to cut.
Jade Tiger (one of a pair), the placard had read. Date: 3rd century BCE. Culture: Chinese.
He had one tiger; the thieves had the other. It had been almost too easy to palm it, the glass between him and the art shattered in the theft. He traced a finger along the tiger's curved back, still a little in disbelief. He was sure it was worth hundreds of thousands, but that wasn't the important thing. The important thing was that it had been China's, and then it had been Harvard's, and now it was his.
He thought back to the paper he had written for class. What is ours is not ours. Who could determine what counted as theft when museums and countries and civilizations saw the spoils of conquest as rightfully earned?
From his coat pocket, a card fluttered to the floor.
Will reached for it, his breath catching in the stillness. For a moment, he was back at the Sackler, listening to the rapid, staccato Chinese of the thieves, their voices a counterpoint to the wail of the alarms. He had pressed himself against the wall, his heart pounding in his ears, and yet one of them had still brushed past him on the way out, so close it could almost be called deliberate.
The business card was a matte black, with the words CHINA POLY and an international phone number printed on the front in neat block letters. And below that, in a messy hand:
When Alex Huang closed her eyes, she dreamed of Chinatown: the red lanterns strung along every storefront, the smell of fish markets, the rise and fall of Cantonese as buyers and sellers haggled. It had been three years since she had stood before the whole glazed ducks rotating in the restaurant's windows, flipped the sign from CLOSED to OPEN each morning at seven a.m. while her parents prepped the kitchen of Yi Hua Lou.
This was how things changed: slowly, and then all at once. An acceptance letter from MIT, a FAFSA form, a bus ride to Boston. Her younger siblings waving to her until she couldn't see them anymore. Holidays spent at school, in libraries or on friends' couches, summer internships on a different coast. A full-time offer from Google her junior fall. Whenever you're ready, the recruiter had said, but the sign-on bonus was more than her parents made in a year.
Within a month, Alex had moved to Silicon Valley.
The sun was setting in Mountain View, evening light pooling on her living room floor. Had it really been less than a year? She could still remember stepping off the plane that first day, how the sky had been wide in a way she wasn't used to after years of living in New York City and then in Boston. She had thought, This is the beginning of the rest of my life. It had been just a little terrifying. Everything she knew, everyone she loved, left behind on another coast.
And so there was just this: a Friday evening and an empty apartment, to-go containers scattered across the dining table. Her laptop was open, her work for the night still not done-never done, really-but despite its hum, her chewing felt too loud in the stillness. Alex reached for her phone, just for something to do, scrolled through all the tasks still left for tonight, the unread messages in her family WeChat group, and-a missed call from Will Chen.
That last one was the most interesting. You called? she texted him.
A moment later, her phone began to ring.
"You are the only person who would rather call than text," she said as a greeting.
"Hey, Alex. Good to hear from you too." Will's voice was low, liquid like honey, and she remembered briefly why she had thought, early on, that there was the possibility of something. "How long does it take to hack into a museum's security system?"
Alex cast a glance at her program; it was still running. "You know that being a software engineer isn't the same thing as being a hacker, right?"
"Alex Huang, I didn't think there was anything you couldn't do."
She couldn't help but laugh. Will was playing on her vanity, but-well, he wasn't wrong. Alex opened her personal laptop, sliding her work laptop to the side. There were so many questions she could have asked, but already this was the most interesting thing to happen to her in a long time. She would let it play out. "I suppose it depends on the museum."
"The Sackler? Let me send you the log-in info."
In a few quick keystrokes, she had pulled up the museum intranet. "Sounds familiar."
"Our first date," Will supplied.
Alex laughed. "I should've known we wouldn't work out the instant you suggested we go to an art museum." They had met on Tinder, during the brief period when they were both new to college and the dating scene, had gone to the Sackler and then for coffee on an overcast New England afternoon. There had been a couple of dates after that, but nothing else, and after seeing the heartbreak Will tended to leave in his wake, she was relieved neither one of them had wanted more. Still, they had kept in touch after she had moved to California, video chatting on late nights when Will's insomnia kept him up and Alex was afraid the loneliness would eat her alive, comparing younger siblings and the heavy weight of their parents' expectations, the specific traumas of their pasts laid bare as the hours passed. She knew him well enough to know that they would never date again.
The Sackler's video footage loaded on her screen. The museum was aglow, even though it was late on the East Coast, and on the cameras outside the museum, police lights spun red and blue over cobbled streets. She switched to another incognito tab and searched up sackler museum +
All the headlines told the same story: smashed glass and black ski masks, twenty-three stolen pieces of Chinese art. There had been three eyewitnesses but no leads. She narrowed her eyes at her phone. "Why didn't you tell me there was a robbery?"
"Alex," Will began. There was a catch in his voice.
"Were you there?"
He was silent for a long moment. "That's why I'm calling."
Alex closed her eyes, thinking of the day she had withdrawn from MIT. It had been fall, the leaves just beginning to change color, and the Charles River twisted like silver wire through downtown Boston. It had felt like the beginning of something, like her whole life was unspooling. She had never described the feeling to Will, but she thought maybe he would recognize it. This evening, the Sackler's stolen art-what was this if not change?
A moment later, Alex had pulled up the footage from the night before. She shared her screen with him as she did, and together they watched the theft. Alex knew Will was watching the thieves, the elegance of their movements, the art that disappeared beneath their gloved hands, but she was watching Will. Will as he got up from his desk at the Sackler, as he ran into the other room. Will standing against the wall, his eyes wide behind his glasses and his dark hair tousled, looking for all the world like any other overwhelmed college kid save for the slight movement of his hand, the momentary glint of jade in his palm.
"Will Chen," Alex said, very quietly, "what have you done?"
His voice, too, was soft. "I know, I know. There's more."
So maybe she had been wrong. Maybe Will had been watching her, after all.
The theft was almost over. As they left, one masked figure brushed very close to Will. She zoomed in on the still, but she couldn't tell what the thief was doing, if anything. "A business card," Will said, and her phone lit up with an image. The words were in simplified Chinese, not traditional, but she could read it well enough. "And an invitation."
"Are you going to take it?" Alex rewound to the moment Will stole the artifact, that telltale shine. Her fingers hovered over the keys. It would take very little to erase this footage. A half-second jump between one frame and the next, chalked up to a minor glitch in the system, the fallibility of tech. It was also definitely illegal.
"If I did, would you join me?"
Her work computer chimed. Her program was done running, and there was more to do. There always was. Alex knew she should say no, return to a Friday night programming in her Mountain View apartment, the rest of her days, the rest of her life blurring together in the California sunshine. She had chosen this, after all. A steady paycheck and the slow upward climb to manager, lines of code in Java and Python and all the languages yet to come. It was the safe choice, the responsible one, the kind that she had spent her whole life making.
In the cool, indifferent light of her apartment, Alex leaned back, thought of change. Three years ago, stepping onto MIT's campus for the first time. Leaving it behind before she was ready. And now-a museum of stolen art, security footage blinking on her computer.
Will's breathing was soft over the phone, and she remembered, too, that terrible first date, walking through the Sackler and then, afterward, the two of them drinking overpriced coffee and talking of dreams. They'd been freshmen then, still figuring out what it meant to go to the best universities in the country, to have so much possibility at their fingertips, but-it had all seemed within reach. His dreams. Hers. It had been so long since Alex had let herself think about what she wanted, separate from her family and her responsibilities, all that she owed the people in her life.
"Alex?" Will said, and it was a question, an offering, an open door.
In one swift, decisive motion, Alex pressed delete. "I'm in."
This late, Harvard was quiet, still, something out of a painting. Will would have done it in slow, sweeping brushstrokes, the sky curving around lamps that shone torch-bright. It was the kind of evening where the impossible felt close enough to touch, to taste. He took a deep, steadying breath.
What was real: the jade tiger in his palm, stolen from the Sackler just hours ago.
What was real: the future carved open.