by Grace D. Li
Publication: April 5, 2022
**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**
The book is promoted as Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell. I am a fan of both movies, but comparing it to these movies skews expectations a bit. While Will, Irene, Daniel, Lily, and Alex are extremely bright individuals enlisted to steal and return Chinese artifacts, they are not skilled thieves like Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan–don’t expect elaborate, romanticized heists. There are some exciting parts, but they do not make up a large portion of the book nor are they the most compelling. Fair warning, there were multiple moments when I had to shake my head in disbelief (not in a good way), but be assured Li writes with a purpose. She does an excellent job of bringing it all together as the book heads toward its conclusion.
As the title denotes, the book is a portrait of a thief, or in this case, individual portraits of five thieves. The novel’s strength lies in the complexity of the characters and the exploration of their experiences as immigrants or part of the Asian diaspora. Will, Irene, Daniel, Lily, and Alex lead seemingly perfect lives with ideal futures ahead of them, but the heists open up opportunities they may not have previously thought possible. More importantly, the heists provide a connection to their heritage, shedding light on their complicated relationships with their countries–no, no, I mean where they’re “really” from. (Ahem…sound familiar? Yah, I’ve had this question asked my entire life.) The opportunity to reclaim the artifacts serves as a tangible way to assert a claim on their identities, providing an outlet to attempt a reconciliation between who they are and who they want to be. Li captures the deep sense of longing that exists in those of the Asian American diaspora. We struggle to find a sense of place and belonging while navigating our identities and feeling like we are not enough–not American enough nor enough for our ancestral country. These are incredibly complicated struggles, but Li puts them into words beautifully.
A child of the diaspora, I grew up grappling with my racial and ethnic identity. I continuously sought, and still often do seek, a space to belong, wanting to be part of the country I was born in but too often reminded I would always be deemed a foreigner. Portrait of a Thief exposed these internal struggles through each character and helped me feel like I was not and had never really been alone. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Thank you, Grace D. Li, for showing me I belong.