Title: Portrait of a Thief
Author: Grace D. Li
Publisher: Tiny Reparations Books
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Genre: Fiction, Multicultural
One Sentence Summary: When college senior Will Chen gets the chance to return art stolen from China, he doesn’t hesitate to form his crew: con artist Irene Chen, hacker Alex Huang, thief Daniel Liang, and getaway driver Lily Wu.
Portrait of a Thief is part heist and part Chinese American experience. It takes five college students from different Chinese American backgrounds and gives them the chance to steal five fountainheads stolen from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing for a wealthy Chinese CEO. While their motivations to take part were a bit on the flimsy side, I really enjoyed reading about their experiences and struggles, and, most of all, how they learned to work together. The relationships they formed were strong and beautiful. Mostly, though, I loved how this book made my Chinese American experience feel seen.
It started with a business card dropped casually into Will Chen’s pocket while the Sackler Museum at Harvard was being robbed of Chinese art. An art history major in his last year, he’s given the chance to assemble a crew and steal five Chinese zodiac fountainheads that had been stolen from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. Five heist, fifty million dollars. With the help of his younger sister Irene (the con artist), he pulls together Alex Huang (the hacker), Daniel Liang (the thief), and Lily Wu (the getaway driver). But they’re college students and one college dropout, and there’s another crew out there. And the FBI.
Portrait of a Thief stumbles and tumbles, and I tend to think that was the point. After all, it stars five early twenty-somethings in college (and one dropout) trying to steal from museums like the Met in NYC and Drottningholm Palace in Stockholm. They have no clue what they’re doing, but it’s life changing money. As a result, the heist plot felt flimsy to me, but I think the point was to give space to the Chinese American experience. It’s a wealthy Chinese CEO in Beijing who wants the artifacts and it’s Chinese American students who have been hired. As a novel that takes an intimate look at that experience, it deeply touched me.
I wasn’t drawn to Portrait of a Thief so much for the heist story as for the story of the Chinese American identity. So I read the heist story with little more than amusement. It was fun, but there weren’t a ton of details. It was much more fun watching these five students who don’t all know each other at the beginning learn to work together. I enjoyed the thrill they each experienced during their heists and really liked the growing camaraderie as the story progressed. From a collection of siblings and friends who don’t all know each other, they form their own family, their crew, a group that will get together throughout their lives because they know each other and their secrets. While each chapter is told from a different perspective and had a healthy focus on their lives outside of the heists, I found my favorite parts were when they were all together, when they could let their masks drop, when they could be honest.
But I really read this because of the focus on the Chinese American experience. Being Chinese American myself, their struggles of belonging to neither world really resonated with me. In China, they’re too American. In America, they’re too Chinese. And then there are the family expectations, the parental pressure, but also their parents holding onto that American Dream, the one where their children can find success. It puts Will, Irene, Alex, Daniel, and Lily in difficult places. But I loved that their experiences were all different from each other. The stereotypical insane pressure to perform well and become doctors wasn’t there. Instead, their stories, their experiences are all different, and I really appreciated that difference. For the first time, I read Chinese American experiences that were nearer to mine, and I can’t say just how much it meant to me to be felt and seen.
The characters were amazing, but also weirdly stuck into molds. The book description never hid the fact that the characters adhered to the stereotypes: the leader, the con artist, the thief, the hacker, the getaway driver. And they all played their roles to perfection. Maybe a little too well, but I did like how some of it bled together now and then. What really drew me in to them were their experiences, their dreams, their struggles while projecting that cool, collected Asian mask. I grew up learning how to make sure my behavior reflected well on my family, and I could see that in Will, Irene, Alex, Daniel, and Lily. The pressure to perform, to make one’s family proud, is high, and yet, with the exception of Daniel, they’re all American-born. That struggle of trying to find your place, of trying to find your dreams while making your parents proud, well, that’s something I could relate to. I loved that they each had their own wishes and dreams, and that some of them were, actually, kind of lost while pretending to have it all together. Identity is a huge piece of this book, who they are and who they want to be.
Portrait of a Thief, though, sometimes made me feel like I was walking into some kind of warp whenever I picked it up. As a heist story, I expected a more thrilling reading experience, one that crisp and cut and laser focused. But it’s not. Maybe it’s because they’re in their earlier twenties and have no clue what they’re doing. Maybe it’s because it’s centered on art that the prose felt like brushstrokes. Maybe it’s that it’s called Portrait of a Thief. It had an interesting literary feel to the words, the phrases, that softened the edges, that made the story blur a bit. It was an experience I struggled with at the beginning, but crafting a life and a future is like a work of art, so, for me, it all worked well together. While the main story is the heists, the writing style continually brought me back to the Chinese American experience.
What I enjoyed most were actually found in the heist story. There were a couple of nice twists that weren’t really ground breaking or Earth shattering, but made the story a little bit more fun to read. I especially enjoyed the one at the end since I couldn’t quite puzzle out how they could possibly pull of five heists across Europe and in the US. It boggled my mind a little how these college students could think they could pull it off. Then again, they’re young and probably retain that adolescent idea that they’re capable of doing anything.
Portrait of a Thief is one half a heist story and one half a story of identity. The heist story was fun and I really enjoyed watching the five of them come together and grate at each other. There’s also some light romance that snuck in, but watching all of them together as they worked to figure out what to do and how to do it were my favorite parts. I really appreciated the different Chinese American experiences they each had, and I most loved that they each struggled to find their place, to figure out who and what they were. Their motivations to take part in the heists were probably the weakest part, but I really enjoyed reading about their lives.
How many cups of tea will you need?
Get your copy (The Lily Cafe is NOT an Amazon affiliate)
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
Pin this! (mostly a reminder to myself, but also an invitation to you!)
Head over to the Bookshelf to check out my reviews of books from the Big 5 and self-published, indie, and small press books.
This blog is my home base, but you can also find me on:
6 thoughts on “Book Review: Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li”
This definitely sounds interesting – I love the sound of a merge of culture and heists, thanks for sharing!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you so much for reading! I found it to be really interesting, though the heist part wasn’t as strong as it could have been. The culture piece was such a nice addition, though.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I really enjoyed reading your review on this book! I’ve been seeing this book advertised everywhere. It’s pleasant to read how you related deeply to the Chinese American experience.
Concerning the underwhelming heist angle (and me being a publishing world nerd), I think one thing that sticks out for me with this book is something I’ve wondered overall about publishing. Usually in the process of getting an agent and then a book deal, there’s this belief that a book has to be as *perfect* as can be. No plot holes. No weak motivations, etc. Yet there are published books where readers point out certain flaws that I feel any skilled editor in the business should have helped fixed. Here, it’s with the heist angle. I’ve seen many reviews on Goodreads also saying the heist felt flimsy, and yet the book is being marketed as Ocean 5 meets Fast and Furious—two mega heist movies. It makes me wonder if the publishers are mostly after reader’s desire for BIPOC books hence aren’t ensuring the quality of the plot/story all around is up to standard.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I definitely have been starting to feel the same way. It makes me wonder if it’s really because the book is that weak or readers just have such wildly different opinions. So far, with Portrait of a Thief specifically, it’s been falling on both extremes. I do tend to think some marketing is just way off the mark and this was just the latest casualty. I think I’d have to agree that it’s due to publishers chasing the BIPOC angle, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for subpar stories or incorrect marketing. Though it certainly makes me think more and more that even my problematic stories could be traditionally published. Sometimes I confuse traditionally published books with indie ones and vice versa.
LikeLiked by 2 people