Portrait of a Thief – Grace D. Li | A Brief Book Review

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. 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.

Published: 2022 | Add on: Goodreads or TheStoryGraph | 3.5 stars – CW: f/f relationship, language


My Thoughts

I had incredibly high expectations for this book, due to the fact that I love heist stories (Oceans 8 + Ally Carter’s Heist Society books are some of my favorites), so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised it fell short far short of what I had anticipated.

When I first picked up Portrait of A Thief I was disappointed; honestly, it felt rather lifeless and boring. I am glad, though, that I decided to return to it a couple of weeks later, because I eventually found myself enjoying the story.

Family and sibling relationship dynamics are a central piece of this story, and the most interesting and well-written piece at that. I appreciated how each relationship was developed and the fact that in several of them actual progress and healing came about in the course of the story.

One of my least favorite elements of the story was the characters. They lacked depth and relatability, often coming across as rather one-dimensional.

In many ways, I found the heist elements of the story rather more realistic than the typical heist story, although any such story involves some suspension of reality. The focus on colonizers and the impact of colonization on art and art collections was thought-provoking.

Overall, I was disappointed by this book, but after pushing through the first part I did enjoy it. I will certainly be on the look-out for what Grace D. Li releases next.

*Note: if you dislike an author prominently featuring their political views in a novel, you will most likely dislike this book.

Were you looking forward to this book? Did it meet your expectations?

Do you enjoy heist stories?

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