Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell in Portrait of a Thief, a lush, lyrical heist novel inspired by the true story of Chinese art vanishing from Western museums; about diaspora, the colonization of art, and the complexity of the Chinese American identity.
History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now.
Will Chen plans to steal them back.
A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago.
His crew is every heist archetype one can imagine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down.
Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted attempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.
Equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, and thrilling, Portrait of a Thief is a cultural heist and an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary critique of the lingering effects of colonialism.
Grace D. Li grew up in Pearland, Texas, and is a graduate of Duke University, where she studied biology and creative writing. Her debut novel, PORTRAIT OF A THIEF, was an instant New York Times bestseller and #1 international bestseller. Her next novel, ANATOMY OF A BETRAYAL, is forthcoming. She currently attends medical school at Stanford University.
Say hi on Twitter or Instagram as @gracedli or visit www.gracedli.com to sign up for updates.
This is a more of a “literary” take on a heist story–it’s less about the heist, and more about the characters’ Asian-American identities and how they grapple with diaspora. As such, you have to suspend your disbelief with the way the characters try to pull off these heists, cuz no way in hell would this happen LOL. My favorite part about this book was the sapphic relationship. Did not expect that, but was fully on board with it! Let’s go mean girls! (I’m aware the author’s sister reads these reviews, so if you are reading this, just know I disagree with people who disliked the character based off of you and liked your character the most out of the cast! Now please ignore the rest of my review bc I’m tired of authors harboring resentment against people for neutral reviews that are not meant for them to read lol)
I think this is the kind of book I would have rated 5 stars if I were a freshman in college taking an Asian-American Studies 101 class. Now that I’m a jaded old woman, I have mixed thoughts. I love the idea of reclaiming stolen art and infusing reflections of Asian-Americand diaspora throughout the story. However, I wish there was more variety in perspectives. Not only did the 5 POVs we got have the same writing/tone, but it also had the same perspective for each character, blurring the cast together into one soapbox rather than a diverse range of interpretations and attitudes. Every time I read a character, I was hit over the head with the same internal conflict every time, rather than getting to see a gradual development or internal change.
The prose is lyrical but repetitive to the point where it became very distracting. The same phrases get used multiple times – things like the air or sky are described as being “full of possibility” (my ebook copy counted at least 20 times), and scenes meant to imply romantic tension will mention “the hollow of [character]’s throat” and “the curve of [character]’s cheek/lips” (at least 10 times). Many paragraphs started off with variations of “It began like this”/ “It had gone like this” / “It would go like this” before listing several descriptions in a row to set up a scene (at least 20 times).
Halfway through, I could outline every chapter following the same structure: start off with describing the weather, then in-between every line of dialogue or action dedicate 1-2 paragraphs to contemplating the diaspora or the weight of parents’ expectations, then end the chapter with some vague reference of possibility in the air. Sometimes, to start off a paragraph, state “This is how it starts” before listing scenery descriptions or activities that the characters are doing in fragmented sentences. For romantic scenes, have the characters contemplate what it would be like to trace their finger from the curve of a character’s lips to the hollow of their throat. I think I can overlook the same phrases being used over and over, but the constant recycled reflection of the diaspora in-between every minor gesture made the story much slower than necessary, without adding anything new to the topic and becoming more navel-gazing and predictable.
completely unrealistic, but still very much enjoyable and entertaining.
for a debut, theres a lot to enjoy about this - the analysis of chinese-americans and their relationship with both countries is enlightening, their identities are complex, the art history and heists are engaging, and the diverse cast is very likable.
but also, for a debut, theres a lot that could have been improved - the writing is a bit repetitive, the connections between the characters arent quite convincing, and the pacing is pretty inconsistent.
but honestly, i really do love a “rag-tag team pulling of a heist” kind of story, so this book was my cup of tea.
every single thing i heard about this book was "it wasn't what i thought it would be."
and still i'm like...huh. that wasn't what i thought it would be!
i am, like any self-respecting citizen, addicted to heist plot lines. they're the best. i once thought i had feelings for someone because we watched heist movies every time we hung out, and then the heist movies were removed from the equation and there were no feelings whatsoever.
in other words, i feel genuine romantic love for heists.
relatedly, i think most people dislike this book (or felt disappointed by it) because it's not really a heist story, and because the heist(s) there are are very rudimentary and not so fun.
and by most people, i mean me.
so this bait and switch (lol) momentarily upset me, betrayed me, destroyed my trust and love in the universe and those around me, but once i recovered somewhat...
the themes that take up the page count that the heists otherwise would have (if i designed the entire world) were enough for me! the explorations of diaspora and colonization, of cultural and personal identity, were fascinating and well done, imo.
where we have a problem (because this is me, and of course there is a problem) lies elsewhere.
namely, in the flat characters, the suddenly-there romances, and the annoying writing style.
there were so many descriptions teeming with that "she was all thighs and eyelashes," "he was all confidence and cologne," "he was all ___ and ___" sentence structure i abhor.
there were so many chapters than began or ended with corny, declarative sentences: "this was growing up. this was the future shifting. this was history."
and i get the theme of what home means that was happening here, but if i have to read one more interchangeable harvard or galveston description i will ensure both are permanently closed.
i guess in the end, this felt like a very promising debut to me, but there was no moment i could forget it was a debut.
sorry if that's b*tchy.
bottom line: the real heist was the expectations we lost along the way.
------------ currently-reading updates
a heist story about Chinese college students stealing back art from colonizer museums? i'm so excited about this i don't even know what to do with myself. what do i normally do with my hands?!
An earnest effort, but this absurdly ambitious, 'The Bling Ring with Asian Americans' debut misses the mark on delivering a cohesive narrative, resulting in a series of self-indulgent melodrama, nonsensical logic, and over-simplification of complex subject matter.
As an oversea Chinese myself (my family immigrated to Canada when I was 12), Grace D. Li has perfectly captured the invisible pressure felt by the children; where the definition of success that's worthy of uprooting an entire family is solely judged in practical means (a recognizable degree or financial stability), rather than individual preference (I was forced to apply only to universities, rather than art school as I wished). Portrait of a Thief absolutely shines when it comes to articulating the personal turmoil of its early-20s characters, from the generational/cultural gap between the children and the parents, to the lack of identity when one is strung between two cultures.
While the inclusion of an art heist is enticing in concept, its execution here simply doesn't work; I was expecting a rompy, tongue-in-cheek narrative — because let's face it, what kind of adult in their right mind would hire inexperienced college kids to steal from international museums? But turns out Portrait of a Thief is absolutely serious about this setup, and Grace D. Li is no crime writer, so instead of maneuver that out-smarts the authority, we get grossly glossed over sections of thing just magically worked out, which defeats the point of reading a heist novel.
I am also conflicted on some of the underlying messages conveyed in Portrait of a Thief, where money is equated to ultimate happiness, and in particular, the idolized view of China. It is never made convincingly clear why these 5 Asian American college students have such a blind devotion to a country they are not fully familiar with; its ambiguity between accomplishing the mission at hand (returning art to its righteous owner), and equating it to general patriotism leaves me a little uncomfortable.
Portrait of a Thief feels like 2 ideas being forced together, resulting in a novel that's neither here or there. I wish I can read an intimate deep dive into the psyche of Asian American young adults, without the half-baked caper nonsense, or a rollercoaster action adventure, without the pretentious sentiment trying to be something poignant. As it stands, Portrait of a Thief shows potential, and I appreciate its representation; maybe younger readers will be able to overlook its superficiality and flaw, but objectively speaking this is neither polished nor enjoyable.
**This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Much appreciated!**
Hmmm, I’m not sure exactly where I’ve landed with this one. The cover is to die for and the synopsis quickly sunk its claws into me, which is why it’s one of the first few 2022 books I’ve started to dig into. And yet, I just don’t think Portrait of a Thief ended up reaching its full potential. It’s a case of trying to do so much that you end up failing at covering the basics.
The story hit the ground running—one of our five protagonists, Will Chen, is working at the Sackler Museum when a crew clad in all black breaks in and robs them of their Chinese art. Through this chance encounter Will gets drawn into a power play bigger than he could ever imagine, and decides to bring his friends along for the ride. In haphazard attempt to imitate the kind of teams seen in the movies, Will recruits his sister Irene ‘the conman’, her roommate Lily Wu ‘the getaway driver’, his old friend Daniel Liang ‘the thief’ and his former flame Alex Huang ‘the hacker’. They decide to take an impossible job for an impossible goal: to return to China what the West has pillaged in the name of imperialism.
And this is where it started to go wrong for me, because none of these allegedly smart 20-somethings have a goddamn idea what they’re doing. They coordinate via text message and WhatsApp. The big planning session, you know where they figure out how they’re going to commit international crimes, takes place on a—wait for it—Google Doc. The largest issue with their scheming is the amount of inconsistencies. Sometimes there’s encrypted calls, they all have flawless fake IDs, but then they also just carry stolen art in their luggage at commercial airports. It’s so insane it’s almost incredible.
And I understand that’s probably intentional to a point, but my problem is that nobody would hire these random college kids to do anything like this. It’s a heist, so there’s always going to be some level of suspension of disbelief in order to buy into what’s happening. But this isn’t a popcorn thriller or a action-y blockbuster movie-as-a-book either. It’s a critique of Western colonialism and imperialism dressed up as a fun ensemble heist. And while I would love to read some ridiculous Ocean’s Eleven-style romp as well as a novel that challenges the Eurocentric global power structure, I don’t quite think they fit together here.
Because don’t get me wrong, the best part of Portrait of a Thief was the reflections of each of the characters on their own experiences as members of the Chinese American diaspora. They’re such a complex, nuanced meditation that I can only assume Grace D. Li is pulling from her own feelings on the subject in some capacity here. But its delivery works against those very points the author is trying to make. Some of the musings on art, history and the West’s imperial legacy, while astute and true, felt very shoehorned into conversations where they didn’t belong. There’s entire lengths of dialogue that doesn’t lend itself into a natural back and forth, and yet these 21 year-olds are conversing like they’re grad students defending their dissertations. Great points, less successful execution.
The characters I think with the most to offer end up being the three outside of the main two siblings, Will and Irene. I would have loved a story of just Alex, Daniel and Lily without the toxic influences of the Chen’s. Will and Irene are entitled, arrogant and spoiled in different but complimentary ways and seem to have the weakest motivations to get involved in the first place, yet are pushing forward the most. That said, even though I did not like either of them, per say, I do appreciate the additional perspectives on being first generation children of immigrants in the US.
Despite my criticisms, I didn’t dislike this book. There’s too much good material present to set it aside, but I am a bit disappointed after hyping it up in my head as something it didn’t end up being. Maybe this would work better as a show or movie, which is something we can all weigh in on down the road as it’s been optioned by Netflix already. But if Portrait of a Thief does end up making it through that pipeline, I hope for a better balance between the art theft and character development. And that they ditch that fucking Google Doc.
*Thanks to Dutton Books, Tiny Reparations and Netgalley for an advance review copy!
Portrait of a Thief is an ambitious story of 5 Chinese-American students who take it upon themselves to return stolen Chinese pieces of art to their homeland. The book explores the themes of art theft, museums perpetuating modern-day imperialism and repatriation of art, as well as the life of Chinese-American diaspora kids and the crises they face in the modern day United States.
Portrait of a Thief is a fine debut novel; it’s engaging and entertaining and has enough charm to keep the reader interested throughout the book. One of my favorite things about Portrait of a Thief is how it portrays the experience of being a diaspora kid and the burdens and worries that come with it in a very multi-faceted way. I think this theme was explored quite well and provided a lot of insight into how diverse an experience of a single community can be.
That being said, I was largely disappointed by this book. It started off interesting, but my enthusiasm quickly dwindled as the problems became more and more obvious.
I’m not the biggest fan of our main cast of characters. None of them felt multi-faceted or interesting enough to get attached to. I liked how the diaspora experience of each of them is explored through a different lens, but ultimately, their wants and needs didn’t feel convincing and they themselves didn’t feel likeable at all. Yes, they were all very flawed in their own ways, but there wasn’t enough to make me sympathize with them and appreciate them even more for the aforementioned flaws. Every characters seemed to be defined by one particular thing and never ventured beyond that and after several repetitions of their goals throughout the book without any novelty to them, it got exhausting to read for the 5th or 6th time how the characters wanted something bigger than they had, without every delving deeper into their motivations and desires. However, I did enjoy most of the dynamics between the characters—they played off each other nicely and provided sufficient entertainment. I have to say, Daniel as a character, and the dynamic with his father were written quite well—the difficult father-son relationship struck all the right chords.
I enjoyed the plot. It was dynamic and entertaining enough. Of course, at certain points I had to suspend my disbelief, but the experience was still fun. Certain aspects of the story were very unconvincing, especially when we got to the actual heist and how the crew of characters pulled it off. And while it seemed a bit bizarre, the world of art itself is nothing short of bizarre, so I didn’t take much issue with that. I still have some questions and certain plot holes bug me, but ultimately, it was okay.
The prose in this book is very repetitive. It is lyrical and flows beautifully, right until a sentence seems like something I’ve already read at least 5 times in the last 5 chapters. It didn’t bother me at first, but as the book progressed it became more and more distracting. I could count how many times the California sky was described in the same manner throughout the book, and while it was beautiful and entertaining the first few times, it quickly became irritating. Be it the description of the environment, the museums, the art works, or the characters’ motivations, this repetitiveness permeated the whole book and it definitely made the experience more boring.
Perhaps the thing that disappointed me the most was how the themes related to art were explored, since the book lacks depth when it comes to its themes. Repatriation of art and its use as a tool of power and politics is a fascinating topic and I was so hyped to see it discussed through the diaspora lens. I wasn’t expecting phenomenal characters, or a phenomenal plot or prose, but I definitely wanted to see this thing discussed and explored in great detail while still keeping it entertaining. Art theft, its use as a tool of colonialism and imperialism, art repatriation are all such hefty topics, and truth be told, going into this book I was expecting a somewhat more comprehensive examination of these issues. Instead, it ended up being repetitive and superficial. It was still discussed, but the depth of the discussion created an impression that this was intended for the younger readers—the same idea rehashed over and over again without any additional nuance. Of course, we Want China to get its artifacts and works of art back, but we’re never given any chance to explore this issue in greater depth. We’re told that art signifies power, we’re told how museums engage in smuggling, but we’re never given anything beyond a few repetitive remarks. Again, I suppose the fault mostly lies with me, since I went into this book with overly heightened expectations in that regard. However, kudos to the book since it inspired me to go on a googling spree about the Old Summer Palace in Beijing—I was definitely very interested to learn more about the palace itself as well as the fates of the stolen artifacts.
This might be one of the hardest reviews I’ve written. When I first heard the premise of Portrait of a Thief I got insanely excited—I am very interested in art history, preservation of art and how it became a tool of imperialism. So, when I heard a book about repatriation of art delivered in a dynamic heist story, I couldn’t resist. However, upon reading it I quickly discovered that this book isn’t my cup of tea. All in all, I think this book needed a lot more polishing. The repetitive prose, the characters that didn’t feel real enough, as well as certain areas that needed a bit more research pile up on top of each other and take away a lot from the enjoyment. I’m pretty sure this book will find its audience and people will be able to enjoy them; sadly, I'm not one of them.
I think this author has a Lot of potential and even if Portrait of a Thief wasn’t up my alley, I’m excited to see what Grace D. Li does next.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced reader's copy of Portrait of a Thief.
This is my book! It's about Chinese American college students stealing back looted art, and it draws inspiration from so many classic heist stories, including the Ocean's movies, the Fast and Furious franchise, and more. And, of course, it also comes from the complicated and often-unethical history of museums acquiring and keeping objects that don't belong to them. But it's also a story about being Chinese American, how it feels to be a part of two cultures and sometimes not enough of either, the heavy weight of the American Dream. I can't wait to share it next year. I still can't believe I get to.
Okay! When I’m holding my ereader and taking final look at a digital arc copy of this unique, totally different, intelligently written book but I have to say something about its advertisement as Ocean’s Eleven meets Farewell!
First of all: this book is about five amateur thieves’ gathering to accomplish a heist and the main five characters are Asians but this doesn’t mean the book has similarities with both of the movies!
I found two things differentiated and well- executed in this book: Perfect , detailed, very relatable characterization with impeccable psychoanalysis.
The author represents perfect criticism of cultural diaspora, colonialism, identity crisis of Chinese society by emphasizing crucial facts!
Those two facts pick up your interest! Even though this book seems like about a heist: don’t you plan to read something similar to high rated Spanish series- Money Heist ( La Casa de papel) only similar thing this book with that series is focusing on character development. Will- the leader of the gang, street racer Lily, sharp witted, queen of sarcasm Irene, sweet Alex, and Daniel who does his best to find his father, we get introduced to bunch of characters: who have different perspectives, dreams, choices, motives. It was absolutely to read their back stories!
The heist parts are not so smart, well planned, detailed, mostly haphazard: they luckily accomplish their mission with more luck less brain work!
Overall: it’s promising and riveting reading pick my interest by its complex characters. I wish publishers chose to find better movie examples to give clearer clues what this plot is about!
We can define it as action packed/ psychological/ multicultural interest fiction! And I truly enjoy the writing style of the extra I tell author!
Special thanks to NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP DUTTON / Tiny Reparations Books for sharing this digital reviewer copy with me in exchange my honest opinions.
Edit: bumping it down because the more time I spend away from this book the more I dislike it lol
I, like so many other readers and reviewers, went into this book with a set of expectations based on what was sold, and unfortunately for me, this book fell pretty flat on all fronts. I understand that this book is a debut, and for what it's worth, I do think that a lot of readers will enjoy this book if they're just looking for a quick easy read. However, I really expected more based on interviews with the author that I'd seen as well as the marketing for this book.
I want to start off with what I did actually like about this book - Li has mentioned in interviews that one of the main messages she wanted to get across was that Chinese-Americans are not a monolith, and I think for the most part, she did a pretty good job at this (with a couple of fairly big caveats which I will discuss in the next paragraphs). I think that Li did a great job at showing 5 characters with very different relationships to their family, culture, and homeland, and this is probably the only thing that I would wholeheartedly praise this book for. I think Li really captured the nuances of what it means to be part of the Chinese-American diaspora, and the difficulties that come with trying to reconcile two (or more) very vastly different cultures.
That being said, I think Li missed the mark here on two fronts. Firstly, I don't think making all your characters come from fairly privileged backgrounds (some more than others, but overall still very privileged) is really conducive to the message that Chinese-Americans are not a monolith. They all attend top tier universities in the United States, with the exception of Alex, who dropped out of MIT to work as a software engineer at Google, which I guess is slightly different, but really not that far off the overall path, if you know what I mean.
Secondly, and more egregiously, in my opinion, is the flattening of the different communities within the Chinese-American diaspora, but specifically the flattening of disapora families that originate from Hong Kong vs China. While it is not explicitly said that Alex's family originates from Hong Kong, it is heavily implied through Li constantly reminding us that she speaks Cantonese, not Mandarin like the others, and that she reads traditional Chinese characters, not simplified. Why, then, is her last name a standard Mandarin last name? Why would her family have named romanized their restaurant name in pinyin instead of a Cantonese romanization? This is honestly so baffling to me and it honestly really irritated me, especially since at the beginning of each POV chapter, all the characters are re-introduced with their full names, and seeing "Huang" instead of "Wong" for Alex every few chapters just made me irrationally angry. Not to mention, the Hong Kong diaspora has a very different relationship with China and Chinese history, and I think ignoring this entirely was a miss.
Aside from these issues though, I honestly just did not think this book was particularly well-written or well-edited. In terms of the editing, I definitely noticed random inconsistencies that seemed like editing issues, such as one random instance of a Chinese character's name written with the surname second instead of first like it was in every other instance, or the 3 random chapters out of 69 where the POV character wasn't re-introduced with their full names. I don't know what's going on with publishing, but it definitely felt like this book needed an extra editing pass.
In terms of the writing, I'm so sorry to say that I absolutely hated the writing style. It was repetitive and felt contrived - it felt like the author was trying to say something profound every other sentence, but ended up just listing off the same few metaphors over and over. There's also weird mixing of verb tenses that made the narrative voice just feel very odd, and I think despite some sentences and passages being really beautifully constructed, the way in which the author kept trying to use the same style of metaphors and sentences to describe mundane things felt unnecessary and lessened the impact that those important moments had. I also just found some of the repeated imagery choices to be odd, to say the least - why was the rising sun a recurring motif? Are these people just all super early risers? But also, while this might not have been intentional on the author's part, the rising sun is the symbol for Japanese imperialism, and using this as a recurring motif/image throughout a book that's supposed to be a critique on Western imperialism of China is honestly just kind of weird.
The plot and characters were also not good, in my opinion. The heist plot was completely nonsensical, and if I had to read one more reference to Fast & Furious or Ocean's Eleven I was going to throw my e-reader across the room. The heists were a series of plot conveniences, and did not have any of the thrilling elements I'd typically look for in a heist (even the ones that are referenced!) - there's no outsmarting the authorities, no creative problem-solving, nothing. The characters did not feel like a crew at all - I didn't get a sense that any of them even really liked each other that much, and one of the romances that was introduced was completely out of left field and so underdeveloped, as well as unnecessary to the story. The only character that actually felt like a fully developed character was Daniel, and overall, none of the characters' motivations were very well fleshed-out or believable. I might feel a certain way about looted Chinese art in Western museums, but there's a pretty big gap between writing thinkpieces and papers about the repatriation of art and committing international art theft.
In terms of the exploration of the theme of art theft, colonialism, and the repatriation of art, I thought it was okay. It was incredibly shallow and lacked any sort of depth, but I did appreciate the mention of it nonetheless. I expected a lot more based on how this book is marketed, and I think that the if the book had focused more on the actual history of the art that is discussed in the book and how it actually tied into power dynamics and politics, it would've been much more impactful. Instead, we just have the same few lines repeated throughout the book about how "art is power" and that art history is an important tool for understanding colonization, but we're never actually shown how exactly it is used as such.
Overall, while I found this book easy to read, I also was incredibly disappointed and did not have a good time with this. I cannot actively recommend this to anyone, especially anyone who is interested in it based on the blurb, but if you're just looking for an easy read that doesn't require a lot of thinking, I think you'd enjoy this more than I did.
eARC provided by Netgalley in exhange for an honest review.
Portrait of a Thief is, perhaps, one of the books with the best synopsis I've ever come across, and no matter how much this book disappointed me I still hope it will somehow miraculously change into something worthy of its concept.
Following a group of pretentious college students, Li managed to not only sink the book's amazing premise straight to the sixth circle of hell, but to make all the subject matters she chooses to tackle into a snoozefest. I'm not an idiot: I'm very aware of the fact this book was not written for me, but I have to say I've read a good amout of books that deal with the topics this book tackles in a much more nuanced and intelligent way. I am happy for all the people this story will impact in a good way, but I think we should all strive for quality over... whatever this is.
The stage is set: a prestigious Chinese company decides to ramdomly hire a group of twenty something year olds to organize a heist and steal back pieces of Chinese art European countries stole, instead of, maybe, I don't know, hiring professionals? But it is not enough to be completely unprepared and frankly stupid (organizing the entire heist on Google fucking Docs, Zoom, and my personal favorite, Whatsapp, which I can safely say is not the cryptic steel-proof safe space they make it out to be, ask any of member of the Brazilian government and they will tell you) they have to be the dark academia, gloomy, depressed people of everyone's nightmare. Portrait of a Thief is not a heist story: it's a poorly written literary fiction novel. Which wouldn't necessarily bother me, if it'd decided to follow the set standard of literary fiction and include good character work.
Every character can be summed up to a single sentence. This is not inherently a bad thing, it's a common exercise they give you in writing classes, but it's supposed to be only that: an exercise. Instead, we get all of them repeating the same sentence about themselves and each other in every chapter. Will "likes beautiful things", and Lily is running away from something, but never towards it, etc. The writing style is one of the only good things in this novel, yet it is also driven to the ground by how unpolished the entire thing is. Endless descriptions of the sky, purple prose that forgoes meaning all together in favor of just "being pretty", which simply doesn't work in its favor when all someone can do is repeat the same things over and over and call it atmospheric.
I won't even bother trying to make sense of how the plot plays out, just know it is, you guessed it, stupid. But another thing: what is it with authors refusing the write down the word lesbian? It's 2022. If you can mention the COVID-19 pandemic, you can say a character is a lesbian.
All this to say, I am constantly blown away by mediocrity. To repeat myself, Portrait of a Thief could've been one of the best books of 2022. Instead it is doomed to reside in my biggest disappointment list.
When I read the blurb for this, I was immediately engrossed. C'mon what's not to love, a group of Asian Americans conducting a heist to return Chinese art to its homeland. That sounds absolutely amazing. Look it starts like a banger, the first two chapters are chef's kiss, perfect for a thriller. But what happened after that...yeah it was problematic for me.
Let me elaborate- 1. Firstly, I get that the main motive behind is to return the art to its native country. As someone hailing from a country, that had it's art stolen by the colonisers too, I get it. Am behind this heist a 100%. But if you're gonna write something like that, bring out the realities as to why. Why do you really want to do it? Make it raw and real. What happened at the time when your art got stolen? Keep it raw for people who are reading it. 2. The characters just went along with the heist without any problems? Umm okay. I get the bigger picture but it's not supposed to be as simple as "Hey mate. I am planning a heist, you in?" "Yeah bro." Yeah that's not logical. I also did not relate to any of the characters. They're also quite forgettable. The personalities are all the same. 3. The story is supposed to about the heist and planning and all the complexities that come with it. But I personally felt that it got overshadowed by the character development taking place. The author was so focused on the characters, that the central plot felt like a secondary one. 4. The story is told by different perspectives of the characters and yet they all sound the same. Wasn't a fan of that. It was confusing. 5. It's described as a literary masterpiece of sorts by some. Yeah I don't think so. Look, the author is no doubt talented but if you're just being wordy without any substance, it's not a masterpiece. So much happened that did not contribute to the main plot aka the heist at all! I skimmed a bit.
This is a book that might work for some and might not work for others. I clearly fall in the latter category. I personally thought this book was a wasted potential. It's such a complex and real subject, the author did not deal with it in the rightful manner in my opinion. It kind of felt like reading a bad episode of Money Heist. Considering the premise, I had high hopes and it backfired. Am not too keen on checking out future works by the author but we'll see.
A mysterious art theft strikes a match when the thieves leave behind their card for Harvard Senior Will Chen, an art history student working part-time at the Sackler Museum. The perfect student, artist, and son, Will has always strived to curate every aspect of his life, yet the mask begins to slip when he finds himself entangled in an impossible plot. At the behest of his mysterious benefactor, Will becomes the leader of a grand heist to steal back five Chinese artifacts stolen from Bejing centuries ago, scattered around the world. With fifty million dollars on the line, Will assembles a crew of his closest friends, all with something to gain if they should succeed and lose should they fail. As each of the crew members wrestle with their own complicated relationship with China, the chance to take back a piece of what was stolen long ago is too great to pass up. Willing to risk it all, they may just find a missing part of themselves in the process.
Portrait of a Thief is a book that really stole the show with what it was trying to impart to its readers. Debut author Grace D. Li writes effortlessly, baring the deepest parts of her soul to all those experiencing the long-term effects of colonialism and the diaspora. Through an impossible heist with stakes beyond imagine, Li illuminates the complexity of Chinese identity against a profound yearning that lives inside those that have had to surrender a part of themselves in growing up elsewhere. With a catching comparison to Ocean’s Eleven, Portrait of a Thief brings the action up close and center, alongside an unlikely group of friends deciding to take something back for themselves. Out of all the aspects of this debut, one of the most poignant parts is the multitude of identities that are explored within. Although all of the heist members are Chinese American, their views on the mission were incredibly divided as they had all found their identity in different ways. Each of the characters had their own complex relationship with China, which was drawn out with each heist and created an interesting conflict between the group. These relationships were a stark contrast to the conversation happening around the heist and colonization, which I really appreciated as a reader. The diaspora affects all people differently, and that was really evident through the individual relationships and unique connections with China. Rather than have the crew get along, I liked that there was some conflict, both on an identity level and the heist itself. Also the little rivals to lovers storyline we were given made my heart soar. With her debut, Grace D. Li has created a novel equal parts thrilling, and critical. Portrait of a Thief examines the diverse parts of Chinese identity, diaspora, and the ways in which an identity can be in conflict, through a group of people determined to leave their mark on a flawed world.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing this arc in exchange for an honest review
all of my expectations have been exceeded. this book is a literary eloquent story about colonialism and stolen culture as well as individual experience of the modern diaspora. for me and my geopolitics major, it was an extremely satisfying commentary on the link between looted art (of the western colonizers) and a nation's identity. it was overall a very satisfying read of which the writing is not the greatest (repetitions, formulations, some problems with tones in POVs) but the refreshing commentary remains of great importance in the genre (in my very humble opinion)
(i hope that a french publisher will pick this up soon so i can use it in my future essays 😩)
The synopsis of this sounded so good; honestly, I felt that this story was interesting. I just wasn’t as hooked as I wanted to be. It was still fun being on this journey with the characters.
Li does a great job of making the characters really relatable. They had struggles with their identity and learning to understand each other. Also, they were all risking so much, like education, careers, and family. They were still very determined to carry out the mission Will introduced. I don't know if I'm just not into heists or I just haven't found the right one for me yet!
⏰ 𝐒𝐡𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐞𝐬𝐭 𝐒𝐮𝐦𝐦𝐚𝐫𝐲 𝐄𝐯𝐞𝐫: Will, Irene, Daniel, Lily, and Alex - a prize of $50 million awaits this team of college-students-cum-art-thieves who wish to return Chinese art plundered by the West back to its rightful owners.
💡𝐓𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐠𝐡𝐭𝐬: I think what did this book a great disservice was referencing Ocean’s Eleven - a slick, fast-paced, let’s-get-rich heist film. This book is NOT that, leaving expectations deflated. (Ugh… I hate when that happens!) Comparing Ocean’s to this novel (with altruistic reasons for theft and character-heavy description) left me wanting the “dazzle” and surprise that Ocean’s Eleven delivered. This is a novel about the Chinese immigrant experience and the children who are further distanced from the country their parents (or themselves as children) immigrated from, the Chinese diaspora, and how that connection affects or doesn’t affect individual characters. More serious than seriously entertaining.
This book delves into the five protagonists - their unique experiences, how they view the world, and how being Chinese (or Chinese-American) defines them, but it left me wanting… due to the “heist-hype” if you will.
Most of the book for me was a repetitive, constant rehashing of facts - where each character was from, their majors, one a commitment-phobe, another lesbian, another a street racer, etc instead of deepening the character study which was merely surface-level for me.
The first heist was the most entertaining part to read, but then I felt the prose turned dogged - dragging page to page until I wanted to skip pages to advance to the next heist where pacing quickened. I tried to delve into the characters but due to the repetitive descriptions and the college-kid-waxing-existential-whining, I lost my wonder.
When I first heard about Portrait of a Thief I was immediately taken in by the concept of a group of Chinese-American students stealing Chinese art back from western museums. And this book delivered on that, alongside explorations of colonialism through art and Chinese-American identity. On paper, it’s a great book.
I felt that this book’s strength lay in the themes it explored. I really enjoyed the exploration of Chinese-American identity, especially as it was through the lens of five different characters who all saw their identity in a slightly different light. In a similar vein, I really liked the conversations surrounding colonialism, ownership and power in art. The story was a great vehicle to explore this and I appreciated how the story was resolved in relation to this theme. I also enjoyed the writing style, it had a beautiful simplicity to it. The slight changes between the ways different POV characters described the world around them was a nice touch: Will, the artist, saw the world in sweeping brush strokes and Daniel, the aspiring doctor, often referred to the intricacies of the human body.
However, I just wasn’t hooked. This book took me a long time to read. When I was reading it it held my attention but I just didn’t find myself wanting to pick it up and so it dragged on. Furthermore, as lovely as I found the writing, it began to get repetitive. It felt like the characters were having the same conversations over and over with nothing new coming from them. Certain sentiments were repeated several times (especially in internal monologues) and I felt that this was unnecessary.
I also struggled with the characters. They didn’t feel fully fleshed out and three dimensional to me. Perhaps because there were so many in not a long book that they didn’t get enough page time. Similarly, the relationships lacked development. I also found the heist plotline a bit flimsy. It required a lot of suspension of disbelief that these young adults with no experience could watch a couple heist movies and suddenly rob high security museums. This was addressed in the book and I think is intentional to some extent but I still found the resolution a bit weak.
Portrait of a Thief had an amazing concept but, in my opinion, didn’t manage to stick the landing. I feel that this book tried to do too much: it had so many characters, so many important conversations, two relationships and also the heists and everything that came with them. While it excelled in its themes, other essential parts of the book fell to the wayside, resulting in an underdeveloped story and characters. I wish I had loved this as the concept was right up my street, especially with two sapphic main characters, but unfortunately it just wasn’t for me.
3.5 stars, rounded up I loved the premise of this story. Right now, there are multiple stories in the news about repatriation of art to the countries it came from. In this book, the art is Chinese. But this is no legal thriller. And it’s no heist action story. The blurb mentions Ocean’s Eleven, which leads to a sense of false advertising. Ocean’s Eleven was all about the action, which this book lacks. A Chinese corporation engages five Chinese American students to steal back five bronze sculptures from five different museums. These young people have skills, but they’re not art thieves. In fact, at the beginning, I kept questioning why the company, given the money they were willing to pay, didn’t hire professionals. The book spends more time on the characters’ identity issues than moving the story forward. The title should have given me a clue what I was going to get. We hear from each of the five, with alternating POVs. This slows the story down in one way while giving the reader a strong glimpse at the issues to be addressed. Unfortunately, the main issue is living up to parental expectations (they are all children of immigrants) which gets done to death. Don’t go into this expecting a heist thriller. If you do, you’ll be disappointed. Once I let go of that expectation, I enjoyed the thoughts and discussions about who owns art, about what is acceptable to get it back. I would have liked more of that. I thought a better editing job, deleting some of the repetition of the guilt these kids carry around, would have helped. I felt like I was being hit over the head over and over again. Trust me, I get it. But overall, I enjoyed this. I thought the ending worked particularly well. It also made for a good audio experience.
Pretentious. That’s the first and strongest word that comes to my mind when reacting to this story, the characters, and the prose.
I always want to be as open-minded as possible when it comes to debut novels, and I’ll admit I was really eager to read this one—about a group of Chinese-American college kids getting involved in international art heists—but the reality of this story was much different to my expectations and what it was being promoted as, in my opinion.
Firstly, if you’re looking for a heist story, keep looking. That part of the book, although central to the plot, was poorly executed from the first laughable mention of these five, seemingly unskilled, privileged-but-discontented-with-life twenty-year-olds, being tasked with not one but five Ocean’s Eleven worthy art heists around the globe. From the very idea, to the planning and execution of said heists, this whole part of the book felt so outrageously implausible and underdeveloped that I couldn’t in good conscious take it seriously.
Secondly, the characters were, for the most part, indistinguishable and unlikeable. Five perspectives seems like something I’d be into, generally speaking, promising quick, fluid turnover from chapter to chapter, and, largely, this did work for me, because if I couldn’t stand one character (or two—I’m looking at you Will and Irene) then, because of the short, snappy chapters, I could move on quickly to the characters who weren’t as abhorrent and dripping with hubris (here’s looking at you Daniel *wink*).
Unfortunately, all five of the inner monologues were similar in tone, often caught in a repetitive cycle of thoughts and ideas that became grating way too early in the story. Each character had big feelings about important topics, including feelings of diaspora growing up Chinese-American in America, as each character experienced some sort of cultural identity crisis and search for belonging, while also (some more than others) having a strong emotional stance on the whole art repatriation issue that was the driving force behind the heists. I can respect the inclusion of these themes, because it’s always a good thing to open discussions and get readers thinking, but the overall emotional resonance of these characters and their feelings felt too vague to be ground-breaking.
Thirdly, the writing style was hard for me to take seriously. I’ve seen many a reader say their experience of the writing was outstanding—lyrical and powerful, even. Each to their own, of course, but for me, it bordered on monotonous and contrived at times. If I began a chapter with “It went like this” one more time, I might have thrown my kindle against a wall, no joke. Also, the author was way too purple with the prose. I’ve never read about the sunrise in so many different-but-same-same ways in my life.
Fourthly, I spent the entire book stuck on the fact that, a) these children (yes, children) were tasked with the art retrieval in the first place, and b) they said yes to even being involved. They pretty much all said yes to being involved in multiple international heists without much convincing and with definitely an unimpressive financial offer as reward (just me?!). The recklessness, the arrogance of it all still astounds. The motives were explained, using all those lofty themes mentioned earlier, but it still felt deeply ambiguous and increasingly self-indulgent as the story unfolded. I mean, we spent the entire book being told how smart and privileged these people were, the futures bright and laid bare, but they still seemed so intensely discontented with their lives, I couldn’t come about it. The line “there has to be more to life than this” (and many paraphrased versions of such) were said by one or more of the characters repeatedly, but I’m still honestly confused as to what it is they expected from life at 20 and 21 years of age, that required potentially risking it all for a sense of patriotism for a country only a few of them even seemed truly connected to.
As is obvious by this point, I found this whole story fairly confounding on a lot of levels. I’m well aware that I am NOT the target demographic for a story such as this, so most people can and will take my opinions with a grain of salt, as they should. This may have not been the book for me, but I still acknowledge and respect the debut effort, especially for the representation within, along with the themes and ideas being brought to the forefront by a book this visibly mainstream.
Portrait of a Thief skips over a lot of detail i was expecting in a heist book. we have 5 key players: the leader, the hacker, the con artist, the thief, and the getaway driver. not once do we get inside their minds while they figure out how to break into a museum, steal the artifact, and escape without getting caught. that's literally one of the best parts of a heist book !!
i love it when we can figure out the mystery with the characters together and get an "aha!" moment when they solve it. it feels earned and is so satisfying. but instead we get:
"okay we have three weeks until *insert museum name*" *meeting on Zoom to watch heist movies to put their plan together* (there is so much wrong to unpack here i don't even know where to start) *reminiscing Beijing* "two weeks until..." *more reminiscing Beijing*
65 PAGES OF THAT !! all for what? 5 and a half pages of them executing it. the execution in question: the thief swinging a bat to break in, three of them running to the artifact, the thief smashing glass showcasing the artifact, stuffing it in his backpack, running out to escape on their moped (a MOPED?😭 ur kidding me. YALL ARE BEGGING TO BE CAUGHT) three weeks of prep all for that??
"There were so many things they still did not know, so many ways this could still go wrong." well maybe you don't know bc you didn't actually plan😀😀
there were just too many unbelievable stuff happening in this book. "Why do you think China Poly chose us?" "Because if we get caught, China won't be held responsible."
China Poly is really going to trust 5 twenty something-year-olds from america to retrieve their precious artifacts? they have a 50 million dollar reward/budget for this shit so maybe actually hire PROFESSIONALS? AND NOT UNI STUDENTS MEETING ON ZOOM TO WATCH HEIST MOVIES TO GET IDEAS??? just a thought.
this book is mainly about them manifesting the possibilities the future could hold for them. which, wow 👹👹 i hate that.
the stakes of this heist is constantly brought up but i never felt the weight of it bc we never get to see the real struggles such as the planning process, the obstacles they face, etc. so many times do i read "'You ready?'" or "What would happen if they pull this off?" i'm ready for your asses to go to jail. can u fucking steal the artifact already
i feel like no research was done for this book since all the cool stuff they apparently do is written so vaguely. EVERYTHING IS SO VAGUEEEEE. "she hijacked the boat" okay sweetie.
and the characters👹 i swear all their conversations with one another try to be so deep but it's really just surface-level questions followed by two paragraphs of internal monologue and a one-word response.
and the characters are so BORINGGGG. i don't even want to get started on the romance. the flirty bits? it wasn't cringy or anything but god they were pulling it out of their ass.
"Are you flirting with me, Will?" bro he just answered a question u fucking asked😭
edit: HELPPP the authors sister included me in her tik tok because i didnt like irene 💔 girl im sorry i didn’t know she was based off of you
This managed to be a book on art heists that was also not at all about art heists. It’s somehow the main plot of the story while also not really being the point of it at all. No, this is a book about diaspora children and how their experiences vary from person to person. It’s about the grief and anger and loss that one experiences when they don’t feel like they fit into either world they’re from. It is not about art heists.
Well, I went into this expecting that, so here we are. This book was so? Like the plot wasn’t even really important, I suppose. I mean, these idiots planned to rob the most high-security museums in the world on a Google Doc. They whatsapp’ed that shit. None of them are even really qualified to do anything. Alex isn’t a professional hacker (something which she states in every single chapter in case you forget). She’s some chick Will picked up who does machine learning but SOMEHOW she hacks these places. Irene is insufferable and almost gets them caught like 30 times. Will literally doesn’t do a single thing except complain that nobody is taking this seriously. Lily was there. I love Daniel so I won’t even mention him in this but you get my point.
These characters didn’t feel fleshed out enough, and maybe it was the fact that they all got their own POV in a 300-ish page book, but I don’t know them. I know their experiences as diaspora children, which is what I think this book does best. I know how they feel about their identity. I don’t know anything else. I feel like this book could have easily been about less characters and focused more on them as people rather than having a whole crew each with their own very different lives we don’t really get to see.
I don’t know. As a diaspora kid I really understood and sympathized with Daniel, mostly because I related to him the most. I felt how he felt and I got his actions. I think the book might have been too ambitious for how short it was and what it was capable of doing with so many characters and experiences.
Thanks to NetGalley for an advanced reader’s copy.
reading portrait of a thief felt like reading my own diary entries, only those entries were folded in between a found-family art heist story, where five chinese american college students stole back looted chinese art from western museums. i loved how it portrayed the experience of being an immigrant/a diaspora kid, the worries, burdens, and pressure that comes with it. one of the things i appreciated the most was how there wasn’t one overarching, universal experience — just like how it is in real life. there were so many lines that struck a chord within me and resonated so deeply. i saw myself in will, with his love for beautiful things, his rage towards colonization, and his drive to set things right; i understood irene’s eldest daughter syndrome, i saw my family in lily, and the way her parents rarely talked about the way things used to be. i recognized alex and her family in my own family, and in the busy restaurants of chinatown that i frequent. but most of all, i saw myself in daniel, and the complex feelings he felt towards ‘home’.
portrait of a thief crept into the deepest parts of my soul, and found a home there, and i’m forever grateful that i found this book 🤍
-- arc review:
i feel so seen also this might be my new favorite book
"For all people care about looting, it doesn't seem to matter when it's museums doing it."
it delivers the discussions you're probably picking this book up for. Such as that on being diaspora and of the stolen art in museums. But I just could not get over how unrealistic it all was haha. Not that every book needs to be realistic but it needs to be believable in the context of the story. I also could never get into to character dynamics but maybe that's on me and i should stop reading YA.
It's still a lot better than a lot of other YA i have read though and it did highlight the themes it wanted, which I really appreciated. Especially the Asian family dynamics, I will always relate to those.
— 3.0 — ⇢ content warnings//
⤜ pre-read review ⤛ hello hello hello it has a cover now <3
bringing attention to this book because heist + college students + asians is my type
They were all children of immigrants. They were all searching for something to hold on to.
i'm conflicted about the rating for this myself because i did like it overall but i expected something more from it i guess.
portrait of a thief is a great debut, one that talks about colonialism through art. stolen art, looted and bought by western museums for over centuries from the less powerful countries. grace d li had a clear vision as to how portray that and make us questions through the actions of the characters whether taking back this looted art, which once belonged to them and their preceding generations, is really a theft. the deep critique on imperialism and the anticolonial agenda is present throughout.
i also really liked the character dynamics and their experiences as diaspora kids following the 'american dream'. its incredibly character driven, each with their own struggles with their chinese american identity as well as the looming question of their futures. with 5 different povs leading the story, i definitely found them relatable, especially in the beginning, as each of their melancholies, dreams, expectations and burdens were brought to life. all of them questioning how chinese or how american they are is a common diaspora experience which was captured in the raw form. also ahh, the writing is incredibly simple to follow and uses pretty metaphors... maybe a lot of them lol.
but ultimately, after the couple chapters in the beginning, they started to fall flat. and their povs started to feel repetitive and tended to blend together which led me to not care about them. after all they're amature 20s something kids attempting a heist, which if you have trouble suspending belief, you will find it to be very clumsily planned and executed. so while i liked reading about them i also wish we'd gotten more depth about their personalities for me to sympathise with them. i also wish that the dynamics (romantic and found family!) between each of them was explored further too because there was some interesting tension and rivalry going on there.
i really wanted more intrigue reading the heist aspect, but portrait of a thief felt more like a coming of age novel. so yeah if like me you're misguided by the marketing, lower your expectations for this being a smartly executed heist. its all way too easy, especially in today's world of tech. i strongly think this book could've been better for me if it was just increased in words and page length, to completely give justice to the character arcs and the heists.
so overall i liked the narrative of portrait of a thief, very unique story with honest discussions on museum ethics and the lasting effects of the past of colonisation, one i think will resonate with immigrant kids. grace d li is definitely a talent, her prose vivid to imagine. but then again, this had a lot of room for being better in my opinion.
thank you to penguin group dutton and netgalley for the arc!