I’m not sure I can discuss this book coherently. I’ve started and stopped and rewritten this review so many times I’m starting to feel dizzy. How do I convey the perfect writing, the depth of emotion, the complex characters, the history and meaning and joy and sorrow Grace D. Li has managed? In a freaking heist novel??!? The audacity!
Let’s start with the basic plot: steal back the five bronze zodiac animal heads that were looted after the burning of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace and are now in Western museums. Our thieves are five American college students of Chinese descent or birth – a pair of siblings, their childhood friend, a roommate, an ex – if they pull it off, they each get ten million dollars.
But this isn’t a heist book, not really, not to me. The crimes are not the focus here. This book is about identity and art and love. It is about the liminal space of college, about becoming who you want to be instead of who you should be. It is about the immigrant experience, specifically Chinese obviously, but about never belonging and the pressures and expectations. It is about desire for a past, for the soil that our roots used to thrive in. It is about siblings and relationships and beauty and parents and all the words we don’t have the courage to say.
The writing? The writing is gorgeous. Li’s sentences stopped me in my tracks, I’d repeat them out loud to savor the way the language fell out of my mouth. I am an absolute sucker for craft and this book is a masterpiece. I cannot sing its praises loud enough. Just. Just read it, please?