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First Look Club: Dan reviews Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

First Look Club: Dan reviews Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li


By Grace D. Li

Publication date: April 5, 2022

Reviewed by Dan Loza

There’s a certain dichotomy in Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief. On one hand, it reads like a heist novel—a thrilling ride that jumps from one country to another. On the other hand, her prose lends gravitas that transcends its genre. Maybe it’s because the characters themselves are in a perpetual struggle about their identity and loyalty. All five main characters are twenty-something Chinese-Americans. There’s Will, an art history student, whose actions at the beginning served as the catalyst for the plot of the novel. There’s his sister, Irene, a public policy student. Alex Huang, a dropout from MIT, served as their hacker while holding a job in Silicon Valley as a software engineer. There’s car-racing Lily, an engineering major. And Daniel, a premed student who has a talent for picking locks despite having a father working in the FBI catching white-collar con artists. As Irene had said, they’re international art thieves with midterms next week.

All of them are conflicted about their life, the push and pull of the East and West cultures, the divide that separates their lives from the history and origins of their parents, and the burden of Chinese expectations and the American Dream. When they were offered fifty million dollars to recover five zodiac heads from different museums around the world, all of them had hesitations. There’s a part of them that knows it’s a crime, but there’s also a part of them that understands that China only wants to reclaim what has been looted from them. Plus fifty million dollars can change their lives—and, young as they are, there’s the adrenaline rush and the excitement to pull this off. What if they succeed? It’s an unmissable opportunity that can potentially reconcile the dichotomy of being neither fully Chinese nor fully American.

Through her characters, Li unfurls the complexities of being Chinese but growing up American. The interactions between the members are not smooth at the start. Their different upbringing and attitude toward their motherland provide a cause for conflict. The characters clash like jagged rocks, their sharp edges going against each other until they find a way to calm down and compromise. This is one of the highlights of the novel. It refuses to stereotype Chinese-Americans into one thing. By having five characters, Li is able to explore different facets of the Chinese-American experience. She gives voice to the unique experiences of growing up different, of being neither this nor that, but a composition of both.

The chapters that focus on the heist feel like a montage in a heist movie. The conversations around the planning transition into the actual heist, but Li maintains the focus on her characters’ inner lives. Always, there’s an internal monologue that permeates throughout the action. After one successful heist, Li ends the breathtaking scene with a reflective insight that these are the only times when the world stood still.

The narrative makes this novel more than just a thriller. It captures the despair and disconnectedness of being born into two cultures. Those expecting a straight heist novel might come away disappointed. Sure, there are moments of fun and thrill, and the characters being amateur thieves lend some excitement and action, but the real adventure here is the character arcs of the main characters. Each of them walks away from the experience a little changed and more confident about their identity.

Chris Daniel has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter @cd_loza and Instagram @danmloza.

[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]

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