Uptown Thief – Aya de León

“If I was God, women would get paid to sit on our asses and think profound thoughts. We’d only fuck people who turned us on. But as long as the female ass out earns the female brain, there are gonna be sex workers who need our clinic.”

Marisol Rivera runs The María de la Vega Health Clinic for sex workers on Avenue C, downtown New York. She combines it with an escort service to help pay the mortgage. Money’s always tight so she’s found another interesting, lucrative and very much illegal way of covering the mortgage and paying her staff: robbing the safes of a group of CEOs (Chief Executive Officers). All of the CEOs are members of an organisation called Ivy Alpha, ‘the national men’s organization whose members are all Ivy League alumni and Fortune 500 CEOs’. Riveria’s grudge against them is due to a sex trafficking charge against the group which was ‘dropped despite several first-hand accounts by the women allegedly involved’. What better revenge than to have them bankroll a clinic for sex workers?

Marisol’s past includes a sexually and physically abusive uncle from whom she protected her younger sister, Cristina, and a period as a sex worker in order to pay the rent. In her twenties, ‘she spent two years as a mistress to a Fortune 500 VP named Campbell’. Bored, living in his apartment, she began to read the books in his library which mostly consisted of texts included on reading lists for MBA students. Marisol read them all and then taught herself how to crack his safe, for the thrill of it. Clearly both sets of skills have come in handy in her current life.


In the first few chapters of the novel, three key things happen: firstly, Marisol returns from a heist to find a young girl, Dulce, outside her apartment. Prevented by her codirector, Eva, from admitting her on fire safety grounds, Marisol takes her to her apartment. It’s not long before Dulce’s pimp, Jerry, shows up, true to his word:

“He dumped me at the ER and said to come home when I could walk. There ain’t many places in the city a beat-down whore can go. He said he knew all of them and he’d be watching.”

Secondly, Marisol meets Raul, the brother of her best friend from high school. Raul’s an ex-cop but there’s something about him that gets under Marisol’s skin. Thirdly, she meets Jeremy VanDyke, a billionaire with a proposition for her.

Uptown Heist isn’t the sort of book I’d usually choose to read: it combines what should be an unbelievable heist plot alongside the stories of a range of sex workers and Marisol’s personal life. I agreed to read it because I’ve included Aya de León’s blog posts in my In the Media round-up and I think her pieces on feminism are interesting and thought-provoking. I’m glad I did; I was gripped throughout the whole book. This is a fast-paced tale, cinematic in style, with a clear vein of smart thinking with regards to women and sex – whether for work or pleasure.

Marisol doesn’t work alone, she surrounds herself with other intelligent women – Kim and Jody, who are a couple, and Tyesha, who’s studying for a Masters in Public Health. All three work as escorts in the service attached to the clinic but also as part of Marisol’s heist team. They acknowledge that they’re part of a patriarchal society that sees women as commodities and use this to their advantage. The book’s sex positive both with regards to the women’s choice to work as escorts and their personal sex lives. However, this doesn’t mean that de León avoids showing the other side of sex work, that which is controlled by men and can be unsafe in a range of ways.

Uptown Thief considers victims and villains, often contained within the same person. It raises questions about power and exploitation and the forms they come in. It asks whether women can carve a path through a patriarchal society for themselves and if there are men who can respect that. It’s pacy, dark, funny and empowering. If you’re looking for a summer read that’s smarter than your average crime cum romantic fiction cum sisterhood novel, Uptown Thief is your book.


Thanks to Kensington Books for the review copy.

12 thoughts on “Uptown Thief – Aya de León

  1. You may not be surprised to hear that I wouldn’t have picked this one up in a bookshop. That said, your review is pretty persuasive and there’s a 1980s/’90s kitsch about that jacket!


    • I wouldn’t have looked twice at it either, Susan. It was only because I was aware of de León, her interests and that she teaches creative writing at Berkeley, that I said yes and I’m so pleased I did! It was really interesting to read it alongside my current PhD reading; I’m looking at classic French Marxist Feminists Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig so it’s been fascinating to read about women being commodities/an exchange value between men and seeing an actual capitalist version of this in a novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You had me at Irigaray and Wittig. Did my PhD 25 years utilizing those two plus Cixous–mon favorite!. I’m thrilled to hear they are still read by younger feminists as the works of all three transformed my personal and professional life.

        How can I not read this book now! Just guessing but wondering if the author unpacks the homosociality of the Ivy Alphas (ala Irigaray).

        p.s.: autocorrect changed Wittig to Wittgenstein.


      • Wow! I’ve read them because they’re referenced so often – hugely influential on Butler and therefore, everyone after – and I wanted to read all the classic texts relevant to what I’m trying to do – I’m determined to go into my viva knowing my stuff! (I want to read the Cixous but I’m having trouble tracking down a copy).

        de Leon focuses on the women so there isn’t a focus on the homosociality but you could identify it particularly through Jerry, the pimp, and VanDyke although de Leon tries to break it via the heists. It was definitely interesting to read it through that frame.


      • Here’s the essay written in 1976 that rocked my world. Not sure it will give goosebumps as it did (and does) for me as I was educated in the 70s, (good working class Catholic girl; first to go to college in family, etc) but do give it a try. She’s not subtle and I felt the world split open.

        Click to access cixous_the_laugh_of_the_medusa.pdf

        . . . and starting the book tomorrow after I finish Essex Serpent (LOVING it).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been following de Leon’s work for a few months because of a link to one of her articles you posted on an In the Media roundup, and following her on Twitter as well. The cover wouldn’t draw my hand in a bookshop, but the more of her stuff I read, the more I’ve been thinking “I really want to read her book”. And now your review’s clinched it! Thanks for that. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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