Portrait of a Thief | ARC Review

Portrait of Thief by Grace D. Li

Published: April 5, 2022

Format: E-book ARC 📱

Tags: Young Adult/New Adult, Chinese Culture/History, Art, Crime, Contemporary

| Synopsis from the Publisher |

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.

Keywords to describe this book:

I received a complimentary PENGUIN GROUP Dutton, Tiny Reparations Books through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

~My Thoughts~

📖 Content 📖 |

📘 Art history, sort of ~ 😮‍💨

Perhaps one of the biggest disappointments, for me as a lover of art history, was not getting very much art in the text. Li gives a superficial overview of the kinds of wonderous art that has been stolen from China that the main characters are trying to steal back, but never goes into much detail or touches on the importance of any one particular piece or pieces. The Zodiac heads are the main focus of the book, but even then, Li doesn’t really go into any detail about the artist who made the originals or what they really look like. I just was expecting more of the book to focus on the beauty of Chinese art and maybe to make nods to famous Chinese artists whose work has been repatriated.

Ultimately, very little of this book is spent in museums or talking about art, which is disappointing to me. I just wanted more and didn’t get it.

📘 Heists, sort of ~ 🤦‍♀️

Though I have not read many books that include heists, I’ve certainly seen my fair share of heist movies – which, apparently, means that I’m already prepped to begin doing heists – or at least that’s what Li’s characters lead me to believe. I kid you not, these characters unironically watch heist movies to prepare to make their own heists. I mean…

This is probably the biggest letdown of the book, the heist portions. Not only do the heists only take up les than 1/3 of the book, they’re also majorly glossed over. There is very little detail (perhaps for a reason, seeing as Li’s best idea of how to get her characters ready to pull of a heist is to take cues from Hollywood movies…) when it comes to the actual heists and most of it is just…very unimpressive, too far-fetched, and just boring. I was just very unimpressed by the “planning” sessions, the event itself, and the getaways. It just wasn’t very well written and that’s kind of a big deal when the whole book is centered around heists.

📘 What even is this friend group?

Another main reason that I did not enjoy this book is the characters themselves. Not only is this heist group not made up of tight friendships or even established professionalism, two of the group members openly dislike each other (though later somehow develop into a relationship…🤷‍♀️). Half of the group hasn’t ever met the other half of the group before they form a team to start doing heists. I mean…most of them are trusting on one member of the group, the “leader,” to vouch for everyone else. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to commit serious, international crime with a group of relative strangers.

So much of this book is split between each individual’s narrative that you don’t get much time to connect with any one character. There are five of them, so you spend the whole book ping-ponging around to each of them and learning almost nothing personal or deep about any one character. In fact, most of what you learn is the same two or three details, repeated over and over and over in each of their chapters. Li gives you the “big takeaway” to understanding each character and pretty much nothing else, so all of them, to me, are just stereotypes of the “hacker nerd,” the “beauty,” the “self-effacing, everyone loves me, but no one really understands me hot guy,” the “bad boy who rebels against his parent because of grief,” and the “street racing hot girl.”

Also, half of them are in love with the other half or dated and it didn’t work out. It was such a messy group, and almost to much to believe that they had one person who as skilled in just the thing they needed to have a complete, working heist team. I can suspend my disbelief a bit but not to this extent.


| 📝 Literary Value 📝 |

I was expecting to read through this book so quickly because I was excited for the plot, the themes. But boy was this a slow read, and a big reason for that is because the writing was very repetitive and kinda boring. So much time was spent reiterating certain things over and over again. Will is constantly thinking “I’d love to do art, if only I was better.” “China is home to such beautiful art, I need to restore it’s stolen art for the glory of China.” and on an on, so on and so forth. Lily’s constantly thinking, “back home I had no where that felt like home,” “the horizon stretches out forever,” something to that effect. Irene’s always thinking, “Will has it so easy, my family only cares what Will does.” I could go on for each of the characters, they all had their particular musing points that they would always return to.

Everything about this book is superficial and uninteresting. I was so hoping for more character development, a more well-crafted plot that would pull me in, but unfortunately, I don’t think Li pulled any one thing off well. This book is just very meh, and maybe that’s just my personal taste talking, but I think there’s just so much potential that was never fully reached. Maybe I’ll enjoy future books by Li as she grows and develops as a writer, but this book, for me, is very lackluster and just doesn’t deliver.


| 🎭 Entertainment Factor 🎭 |

I’ve said it before in this post, but I was very bored throughout this book. I never felt fully immersed in the story, nor did I feel like I could connect with any of the characters. The shallowness of the story and the characters kept me from delving into this book, which was a big disappointment for me. I had to force myself to keep reading this book. If it wasn’t an ARC (which I felt obligated to finish), I probably would have DNF’d it. I just didn’t enjoy any part of it.

Read Alikes:

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang | How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao The Verifiers by Jane Pek |

| My Rating |

I Want My Money Back

Unfortunately, this book did not live up to the hype. I was so excited to be reading a book about art history, which I love, and themes addressing stolen art and museum culpability. What this book gives you, however, is a very repetitive, poorly crafted story that includes very little heist, very little depth to characters or the themes of art theft, and little to no acknowledgment that China, though deserving of its art, has some serious problems, including human rights violations and an oppressive government that would not look kindly on many of the main characters in this book, all of whom seem to have such rosy, patriotic views of this country. It’s just oddly very patriotic about China. I think you can tell the story of art repatriation without doing this.

Though I cannot claim to know much about reclaiming art and what museums should do with the art they did not come by honorably, or what it is like to be a child of diaspora, I do feel like the author didn’t provide much depth to these topics. Much of the book is very superficial, with the same thoughts and feelings the main characters express being reiterated over and over and over again. I feel like I don’t know any of these characters at all and none of them felt believable to me. I certainly didn’t feel like the relationships that develop between them are at all earned based on how little character development occurs during this book. Because of this, I didn’t really like any of the characters. They all felt like caricatures and none of them, with maybe the exception of Daniel, really grew or changed over the course of the book. I’d say the two main characters, Will and Irene, are some of the most selfish, entitled characters I’ve ever read about and I was not rooting for them to succeed at all, which is sad.

The writing in this book is just very repetitive. I was so bored. The parts I expected to be exciting, like the heists, were glossed over, and what little is explained is very unbelievable. I can suspend my disbelief when reading certain kinds of fiction, but this book does not provide any sense that it knows what is going down is outlandish, rather it passes it off as if this is a totally legit way to carry out a heist. The fact that college students are hired to pull off a heist, with little to no evidence that they would be capable of such a thing, and that said college students watch heist movies as research, use Google Docs and Whats Apps to write down and communicate all their plans, it’s just baffling that they didn’t get caught after the first one.

I almost didn’t want to finish this book because it was just so boring. I wanted to see how Li would end the book, but I can’t say I’m impressed or glad that I did. It didn’t change how I felt about the book and it didn’t feel like it was earned by all that came before. Spoilers, but the end result of the book was how they should have gone about pulling off these “heists” in the first place, and I almost flipped a table when it was revealed that that was how they solved their problems and wondered why they didn’t just do that in the first place. I don’t think I’ll be recommending this book.

How about you?

Let me know what you think! If you’ve read Portrait of a Thief, share your thoughts! If not – are you going to read it or pass on it? Tell me all about it in the comments. Keep up the reading!

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