cover image Portrait of a Thief

Portrait of a Thief

Grace D. Li. Tiny Reparations, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-18473-8

Li debuts with an intriguing if uneven twist on the heist genre. Harvard art history student Will Chen witnesses a brazen smash-and-grab at his school’s museum; the thieves make off with objects that were themselves stolen from China centuries before. In the chaos, Will pockets a jade figure. One of the thieves spies his move, calling it a “nice lift,” and slips him the business card of a Chinese business mogul, Wang Yuling, who later recruits Will into the world of art theft. Will soon assembles a group of Chinese Americans in their early 20s, including his younger sister, Irene; and Daniel Liang, who grew up in Beijing and comes primed with knowledge gleaned from his art thief–busting father, who works for the FBI. The inexperienced team agrees to steal five Chinese zodiac fountainhead pieces in exchange for $50 million from Yuling. The first heist, in Sweden, is a success, but during the second theft in France, competition arises when another gang gets to the target first. Li smartly focuses on the bonds created in the group over their shared Chinese roots, though occasionally floundering prose (“The night was dark as an oil spill”) tends to pockmark the page. Like a popcorn movie, this is best enjoyed with a hearty suspension of disbelief. Agent: Hannah Fergesen, KT Literary. (Apr.)