BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li [in Booklist]

Long before the first alarms are triggered here, renowned museums have been legal showcases for artful plunder: Nefertiti’s Bust in Berlin’s Neues Museum, the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, the Koh-i-Noor in the Tower of London. Grace D. Li’s fascinating albeit uneven debut zeros in on one treasure, China’s Old Summer Palace fountain comprised of the Chinese zodiac’s dozen animals. Five of the bronze heads are missing.

In a Beijing penthouse, five Chinese American college students (one’s actually a dropout) get hired by China’s youngest billionaire to retrieve the bronzes for a reward of $50-million. Harvard art-history senior Will gets tapped as leader. His “heist crew” couldn’t be more promising: his sister Irene (Duke, public policy) as con artist; his best friend Daniel (med school-bound UCLA senior) as thief; his Tinder-hookup Alex (ex-MIT, gone to Google) as hacker; Irene’s roommate Lily (Duke, mechanical engineering) as getaway driver.

Li composes gracefully, and her polyphonic quintet is especially convincing as each considers motivations, generational debts, hybrid identities, and complicated on-the-cusp adult relationships. The to-be-expected navel-gazing, alas, repeats and lingers, dulling Li’s brilliant ending.

YA/General Interest: Li’s youthful, searching protagonists will undoubtedly resonate with older teens.

Review: “Fiction,” Booklist, March 15, 2022

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2022


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