Review: Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.

Publisher: Coronet
Published: April 2022
Pages: 384


This was how things began: Boston on the cusp of fall, the Sackler Museum robbed of 23 pieces of priceless Chinese art. Even in this back room, dust catching the slant of golden, late-afternoon light, Will could hear the sirens. They sounded like a promise.

Will Chen, a Chinese American art history student at Harvard, has spent most of his life learning about the West – its art, its culture, all that it has taken and called its own. He believes art belongs with its creators, so when a Chinese corporation offers him a (highly illegal) chance to reclaim five priceless sculptures, it’s surprisingly easy to say yes.

Will’s crew, fellow students chosen out of his boundless optimism for their skills and loyalty, aren’t exactly experienced criminals. Irene is a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything; Daniel is pre-med with steady hands and dreams of being a surgeon. Lily is an engineering student who races cars in her spare time; and Will is relying on Alex, an MIT dropout turned software engineer, to hack her way in and out of each museum they must rob.

Each student has their own complicated relationship with China and the identities they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but one thing soon becomes certain: they won’t say no.

Because if they succeed? They earn an unfathomable ten million each, and a chance to make history. If they fail, they lose everything . . . and the West wins again.

My Thoughts…

By now, it should be no surprise to anyone that I love a good heist/con story, so when I heard of Portrait of a Thief, I just knew I had to read it.

I loved that this was not just a heist book (which, anyway would have been enough for me!), but it was also a fascinating character exploration AND a critique of Western imperialism and its lingering effects today. As five Chinese American students set out to retrieve ancient Chinese artefacts from Western museums in order to return them to the Chinese people, they didn’t just take me along on their highly illegal and dangerous quest but also kickstarted some deeper reflections on art, museums and colonialism.

The characters were great, and I loved how well each of them was characterised as an individual. The alternating POVs worked really well to give us an insight into each character’s thoughts, motivation, fears and desires, and I really enjoyed the wide spectrum of experiences that was portrayed here. Will, Irene, Lily, Alex and Daniel all come from different backgrounds and experience their culture and their relationship with both America and China differently, with all their complexity and sometimes contradictions, reflecting the many, many experiences of people who call more than one country “home”.

But their struggle with identity isn’t limited to their sense of belonging, and I loved how universal some of the characters’ reflections felt: from following your passions to the pressures coming from social and family expectations to discovering and accepting who you really are, I could recognise many of my own conversations with friends and loved ones. Of course, I didn’t try robbing several museums as a way of working through this but I enjoyed seeing our protagonists undertake this journey.

Where this book fell a bit short for me though was in the pacing. Although I loved the introspection, several passages felt very repetitive, with characters going over the same things over and over again. The heist planning sections were similarly slow and surprisingly underwhelming, with most being resolved with a quick Zoom call, and I missed some of the excitement that is typically found in this genre. Of course none of it is realistic, nor would I want it to be, but I would have enjoyed this even more if there had been a slightly faster pace and fewer repetitions. I did like the references to the pandemic and lockdowns, which were handled very delicately and helped ground the story in simil-reality, and the banter between various characters made me smile more than once.

Overall, Portrait of a Thief is a fantastic debut. Despite some minor flaws, it’s an incredibly well-written and thoughtful heist novel that is sure to spark some brilliant discussions on a wide range of themes.

Rating: 4/5

Four butterflies to indicate rating.

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