Review: Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

  • Title: Portrait of a Thief
  • Author: Grace D. Li
  • Genre: contemporary fiction
  • Intended audience: young adult
  • Format read: eARC
  • Publisher: Tiny Reparations Books
  • Pub date: April 5, 2022
  • Content warnings: past parental death
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest 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. 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.

An image of blue flowers on a white background.

As I believe many readers were and will be, I was initially drawn to Portrait of a Thief because of its status as a heist story. Ever since I first read Heist Society at age 12, I have loved a good heist. But as I was soon to discover, Portrait of a Thief is more than just a witty heist novel. I believe the most accurate description is that it is a quiet, intelligent novel about identity, culture, and, honestly, ethical dilemmas of art.

Portrait of a Thief covers the life of six different college students as they work together to steal back some of the most priceless pieces of Chinese art in the world. Mastermind, hacker, grifter, they are your traditional heist team. Until…they’re not. They don’t really know what they’re doing. And like most college students, they are actually quite self-conscious. They are flooded with fears and self-doubt. They bicker with each other a lot. I think one of the reasons I liked Portrait of a Thief so much is that it is really about young people attempting to find their place in the world. They just happen to be doing so while planning to rob six of the world’s highest security museums.

In each of her characters, Li captured what it feels like to be standing at the precipice to your future, unsure of what your next move should be. Honestly, it is scary and overwhelming, and Li portrays it well. I loved getting to read about each of the characters’ individual journeys. They each had their own distinct perspectives and approaches to the challenges in front of them, which made the book infinitely more interesting to read.

Something I really enjoyed was the way the novel incorporated discussions of diaspora into the characters and the text. Each character approached it from a different perspective, leading to nuanced and interesting discussions. I have never seen a young adult handle diaspora in the way that Portrait of a Thief did, but I think it was high time.

Li creates a satisfying plot and a compelling cast of characters. Her writing successfully captures the many emotions of being a college student, and also manages to create interesting conversations around who art really belongs to. I highly recommend Portrait of a Thief, and I cannot wait to see what Li writes next.

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