Portrait of a Thief is a heist story wrapped up in the tale of five Chinese-American students carving their own futures, as they race to try and reclaim sculptures for China. Will Chen is an art history student at Harvard who wants to make a difference. When a powerful Chinese company offers him fifty million dollars to put together a heist crew and steal five sculptures from various galleries, he would do it without the money, just to bring the art back to its creators. He puts together a team, of his sister Irene, who can talk anyone into anything, his best friend Daniel who is applying to med schools, Irene’s roommate and street racer Lily, and Alex, an MIT dropout working for Google though she’s feeling lost. Together, despite lacking any experience of stealing art, they try to work out how they can get in and, most importantly, get the art back out.
I love heist films and I love stories of university students doing illegal/questionable things, so this book immediately appealed to me. I like how it feels like a literary twist on the heist, more focused on the characters and their often haphazard attempts to pull heists off than being a simple slick display, and I was drawn into the characters’ interpersonal relationships, particularly Irene and Alex’s dynamic. For a heist story, you saw a lot of the characters’ thoughts and motivations, and though as there’s five main characters these can sometimes feel a little overemphasised, that still felt fitting with how heist films need obvious dynamics and roles.
The focus on reclaiming art felt like a great frame for the book (though I did expect some comment on the repeated appearance of the Sackler, as another important issue in the art world) and though this kind of book isn’t necessarily going to go into great depth about issues in museum and gallery collections, it brings together both interesting social and political questions and reflections on the characters’ own senses of self and morality. Importantly, it’s also just fun, with a inexpert crew of young twentysomethings doing relatable things like using a Google Doc to plan it. Sure, it’s ridiculous, but so are most heist films.
Portrait of a Thief is the trashy literary heist book I didn’t know I needed, maybe particularly aimed at people who love both the Ocean’s films and The Secret History, but also with a look at cultural imperalism and diaspora. It’s not perfect, but I was holding my breath to know what would happen, and I loved the character dynamics. I would not be sad if there was a sequel, either.