Cover Image: Portrait of a Thief

Portrait of a Thief

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Member Reviews

Thank you to Netgalley and Tiny Reparations for providing me an ARC to read and review. As soon as I read the description of this book, I knew I had to get my hands on it ASAP! A heist book that tackles colonialism and Chinese American diaspora? Sign me up! 

However, I ultimately have very conflicted feelings about this book. I’ve been thinking on it a lot since I finished it a week ago, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a great concept that didn’t execute all of its elements as well as it could have.

There was a lot of good to it, though! As mentioned above, the sections that tackle colonialism and stolen art are done very well. I thought the characters’ backstories and motivations for getting in to the heist were well fleshed out, and each different enough that they brought something to the story.  I also thought Li handled such a sprawling setting effectively - they were literally all over the world, but it never felt disconnected and each place was descriptively delineated. 

But I thought the writing was repetitive and a bit too flowery. The same metaphors and descriptions were used again and again, and, while I suspect some of that was Li trying to really drive the point being made home, it got boring after awhile because you felt like you were re-reading the same chapter. It also made the book feel slightly too long; I think a bit more editing would have made the story seem tighter. 

My main issue with this book is that the stakes never feel that high. While I understand these characters aren’t professional art thieves, they make some very bad choices, and yet a lot of it seems to go perfectly smoothly for them. I think the action sections and the intricacies of the heist needed to be tackled better, to match up with how well the underlying message is handled.

Even with the issues I had with it, this was a very fun book, and as a debut, makes me excited to see what Li puts out next! 

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Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley for the Advanced Reader's Copy.

Available April 2022.

To be honest, I struggled to get into this story. There was so much exposition but very little understood. The story kept jumping in time, place and character. It was slippery, like a thief trying to keep his lies straight.
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I am so in love with this book . Portrait of a theif was my dream book right from the time I heard about it , the plot , the setting everything was something i would read and this book proved it right . 
Grace D li was able to create 5 such characters and a reason you'll root for even though ethically it's wrong . 
It's comparatively denser than most thriller where they are fast paced and incident centered this book was slow giving you time to love and understand the characters , to interact with them and become fond of each and everyone of them .
This book was more about why than how . And I absolutely loved every second of it . Will definitely read everything she write in the future. 

Will post in depth reviews on all my socials closer to the publication date .
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I’m in a little bit of shock after reading this book, along with a healthy dose of awe. Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief of a dazzling lyrical masterpiece full of gorgeous prose and five fascinating protagonists. It tells the story of five Chinese American college students as they plan several heists to take back what the West stole, five Zodiac figureheads spread out across European and American art museums. The writing in this book is so incredible it took me from Boston to Beijing to France and onward. It’s the kind of book you both want to savor as it navigates many twists and turns, and devour so you can find out what exactly happens next. 

What originally drew me to this book was the focus on art history, and it drew me in even further with the promise of a lot more nuance to your typical heist story. These five aren’t masterminds, they aren’t trained criminals doing it for no reason or only for the money (though that is certainly a part of it, and reasonably so), they’re college students learning as they go. They’re doing it for a love of history, or a love of another person. This book feels so deeply personal, as do each of the protagonist’s stories. For me, Will’s story was the one that hit the closest (maybe that’s just the fact that we’re both a little too into art history), but there wasn’t a single character that I didn’t empathize and feel connected too over the course of this book. Grace D. Li manages five different POV’s not only decently, but masterfully, crafting five characters who are wholly different, but the same in the ways that matter. The underlying theme of the way that the characters interacted with the art, both as a historical fixture, as a piece of power and political thinking, and as a valuable path and a passion was a favourite of mine. Art is such a sacred thing, such a tool for telling history, but this book goes so much further in questioning why it’s something that should be locked away as a pretty object, erasing a history that’s often of blood and conquest. This is a book that loves art and its history, but also pushes back against the Western ideal of taking it with no respect for the creator. 

Even further, the relationships between the characters are so raw and real, and I couldn’t help but cheering them on. The best part of this aspect is that while romantic relationships do come into play, they’re not the only ones, nor the most celebrated (although I was absolutely ecstatic to see the sapphic relationship represented in this book). These characters aren’t just heist partners, they’re friends (most of the time), they push and pull at each other and try to make each other the best they can be. Their relationships aren’t always perfect, but they’re so real. There’s also a number of important familial relationships, at times painful but at the end so fulfilling and so masterfully done. 

The ending was a bit of a surprise to me, and it might be the only part that I feel a little bit unsure about, as well as a few loose (minor) strings at the end. But it is nice to imagine a world where five Chinese American college students can make that much change in the world. And when Will Chen walked across that Harvard stage, it did truly feel like the right ending.

Ultimately, what can I say besides the fact that I loved this book. The writing is absolutely beautiful, the characters are stunning, and the plot line had me on the edge of my seat. I can confidently say that this has made me both a Portrait of a Thief, and Grace D. Li fan, for life.
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Unfortunately I could not finish this book. My expectations were super high and I really tried to like it but the characters were too dumb and I could not deal with them. Seriously, who plans a heist over zoom and put all the information and research in a google doc?
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Unfortunately I'll have to dnf this book. It was all fun and games till they started planning the heist over zoom and all the info and research was put into a google doc. I'm sorry but with this piece of information I just can't take them seriously and enjoy the rest of the book.
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Wow, I can't believe this was a debut novel for this author, it was really impressive. I can only hope this book gets a movie deal immediately, it was so cinematic. I was really invested in these characters, not just if they could pull off the heists, but also if they could figure out what they want to do with their lives. In some ways, the plot was not believable at all, but I didn't exactly mind, the characters kept reminding us that they weren't professionals, yet they continued to do things that only professionals could do. It was such a mix of characters too, despite all being Chinese American (which in some other books would just be the main character identifier in itself.) Some from China, some who had never been before, some wealthier than others, from different parts of the country and with different career interests and families. I will recommend this to all my friends when it comes out, and look forward to seeing the movie (fingers crossed.)
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Wow! This was a heist book done super well. I found myself holding my breath at a lot of scenes. Compelling, lyrical, and excellent pacing.
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I love, love, love the premise of this book. The author's writing is lyrical and gorgeous, and I loved getting to see the characters through this lens. The cast captured my attention immediately. The way that Li writes about the diaspora is realistic and utterly relatable, and it was amazing to see the ways in which that could tie into the plot.

I did find it a bit hard to settle into the book after my initial excitement, but I also had no doubt that would change as the pace picked up. The introduction to the cast was long but ultimately worth it, and I was grateful for that as I watched the heists unfold.

I've already talked so much about this book even though it's not out yet. I'll have an eye on this one for sure!
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I love a heist story and this did not disappoint. Even as someone well-versed in the genre, I was genuinely thrown by the eleventh hour fake out. The one where it looks like the heroes have been caught but it turns out that was part of their plan all along. It just goes to show how brilliant the writing was, and how compelling the story. 

The large cast of POV characters felt well balanced to me, with distinct personalities and motivations. Not only were the stakes high and personal, but it was believable that they would gamble it all on such a risky venture. Casting them as college students evoked feelings of that precipice between school and the ‘real world’, when young adults are so focused on their futures, and made the risk of losing those futures even more daunting. 

The differences throughout the book between various characters (even minor ones) and their relationships to China came off as heartfelt and nuanced. As did the relationships between each of the crew members. No two relationships in either case were the same, in a way that felt realistically complex. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this read and look forward to more from this author!
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I’ve been so excited about Grace Li’s debut since I heard about it because I love a good heist story and Asian American rep. Portrait of a Thief is a love letter to the Asian diaspora and is ultimately about family (blood and found,) identity, and self-discovery. It’s a beautifully written book–I think I highlighted 50% of my eARC because Grace’s prose is stunning–and I can’t wait to revisit it.

Full review to come.
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Thank you so much to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review :)

gonna bump this from 3.5 to 4.5 stars bc i still can't stop thinking about it because good god even if its tediously repetitive i needed this book in my broken little diaspora heart 

grace li really knew exactly how to attack every single chinese american kid and decided to write the gay heist book version of mitski's your best american girl in the most lovely prose huh 😭😭😭

this was...just absolutely lovely. while not exactly what i was expecting, portrait of a thief was truly an atmospheric and aesthetic experience, as well as, in its heart, a melancholic love letter to the chinese american diaspora kids, with these five main characters representing each aspect of the longing and pain that comes with being 2+ generation immigrants that unconsciously lingers in my mind every single day. 

how is it that i related to like. everyone in the book, especially daniel with his grief of never being able to return to his childhood home in beijing, since i, like him, also grew up playing the streets of fuzhou, will with this burning rage towards colonialism and wishing that the country he's barely ever be to would love him as much as he loved it, and lily with her detachment towards the culture of her background, constantly feeling like it has no right to belong to her so she doesn't bother learning about it at all. honestly, unless you're a chinese american or also a fellow diaspora kid, this book would really not hit as hard as it's meant to be. 

oh, also i appreciated the enemies to lovers sapphics. i loved mean lesbian irene who cannot for the life of her not antagonize her crush and alex huang who thinks irene hates her so she pretends to hate her right back but oh no she's hot?? thanks grace li for my life. there were so many gay quotes i would love to share but i can't until next year when the book actually comes out,,,, PAIN.

everyone is also really hot so take that as you will
the reasons that i can't give this one higher than 4.5 stars though was mainly because i was expecting a fun, character relationship driven, dynamic and plot centered heist story, which is not what this book was aiming for (though it still absolutely delivered in its own way so i wasn't too disappointed). not to set anyone up for disappointment, but the heist part of this book is incredibly minimal. the characters' relationships with each other also weren't really developed as much as i would have liked, and this book read more like a character study of each character rather than being centered around an action filled heist, which is what i would've preferred out of this reading experience.  

also the writing, while beautiful, really was not for me. it reminds me really of honey girl's writing style, but something i noticed was that a lot of the same messages and lines about each character were shoved in our face repeatedly in different forms, or sometimes not in different forms. besides the overepetition, the amount of philosophical internal monologues really slowed the plot down and really bored me at times, though im guessing from reading the entire novel that a plot driven heist wasn't really the author's intention, so it’s really just a me thing lololol 

then, finally, small critique about the sapphics: please just call irene a lesbian. it's confirmed that she is one, right? it's not a bad word and it would be so refreshing and cathartic people like me, a chinese lesbian, to see a person like me on page call herself one. that's something ive noticed among many authors is that they absolutely refuse to do it and it's tiring. thanks

overall, i loved this book, just didn't expect it to deliver the things i wanted the way it did. would highly recommend it if you want to drown in the pain of diaspora and if you want to read the book version of every single mitski song ever, but not if you want a escapist anti-colonialism plot based heist story.
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Gorgeous. As riveting and slick as it is thoughtful.  

While the heist plotline is totally entertaining, it's also totally implausible (especially on the technology side). This crew succeeds almost on dumb luck. But I'll give it a pass because the work Portrait of a Thief is doing as commentary on colonialism and diaspora is top-notch. As character studies, Will and his crew and what they learn about themselves through this series of heists is fascinating.

And honestly, I loved seeing the high achievers be the Cool Kids for once. I can't wait to see Portrait of a Thief come to life on Netflix.
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I LOVED THIS! this story was written beautifully and i loved every single character. will chen is my newest book boyfriend and i can’t wait to see him on screen if we ever get that netflix show!
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Thank you to NetGalley for giving me an e-arc in exchange for an honest review!

First of all, I want to say this quickly became one of my favorite books of all time. This will probably be the longest Goodreads review I have ever written or will ever write. I feel like Grace Li reached into the depth of my soul and pulled out everything I would resonate with the most and put it into this book. 

The writing was absolutely incredible. I LOVED the descriptive imagery and the metaphors and all the figurative language she used. But none of that even holds a candle to how purposeful ever single sentence felt. All the characters' mental tangents and side-stories-that-became-backstories were included in such a way that I could both enjoy the content and fully admire how Li managed to tie everything back in to the characters and their personal arcs. 

And as a perfect segway into my next topic—the characters. It is so easy to lose motivation for characters in an ensemble cast, but Li did not drop the ball even once. Each character was unique and fully fleshed out and so, SO goddamn compelling. I found something to love in every single one of them and I found a small part of myself in all of them as well. 

One thing that especially resonated with me—and, I can presume, many of the children of immigrants that have or will read this book—is how the idea of the diaspora is presented. The themes of identity and existing in too many places while simultaneously belonging in none of them really hit home with me as someone who grew up in the United States but whose parents and history and roots came from a different culture. This is masterfully woven into the book in a way that I don't think is alienating to anyone. It's so easy to focus on a specific group of people and cater to only that group, but the themes of diaspora in Portrait of a Thief are so carefully crafted that I think anyone would be able to see themselves. The beauty of it is, the layers the theme goes into ensures that everyone can relate, but children of immigrants can relate a bit more, and children of specifically Chinese immigrants will be able to relate most of all. 

Reading this book truly felt like reading a love letter to Chinese culture and finding your identity. I could feel the care and adoration written into every line. I normally take between three and six days to read a book; this one took me nearly an entire month. Yes, part of that was because I've been busy, but there were moments I could've squeezed in another page or two just to get through it, and I didn't. I didn't because I wanted to give the book the same reverence it so clearly bestowed upon its themes and itself. The best decision I could've made was to savor this book and absorb the story with my full attention and heart open to it. 

This is much MUCH sappier than I usually get and definitely the longest review I've ever written by a MILE, but Portrait of a Thief and Grace Li deserve it.
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one very solid debut!
the best part of this book by far was the exploration of asian-american identity: i saw so much of myself in these characters and li does a great job of distinguishing each of the 5 as their own person
however the heist element just didn't live up to my expectations - not only the extreme unrealisticness of them planning all these things on very easily trackable platforms, but just the descriptions of the heists themselves didn't get my heart racing or any suspense going
romance was sweet and fine, nothing too special
loved li's writing style as well: she's obviously very talented and i'm excited to see what she publishes next
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Thank you to NetGalley for providing me an advanced reader copy of the book to review.

I really enjoyed this book. Why the characters were chosen to go on these heists wasn't really fully explained (except for Will being in the right place at the right time) and some logical inconsistencies made me drop the rating from a 5 to a 4.5, but other than that, I really enjoyed this book. All of the characters were well thought out and had intriguing stories, and the actual plot itself was incredible. I loved the idea of stealing back stolen art. I also found it interesting that the pandemic was briefly mentioned as something that passed and that they overcame. It's going to be interesting seeing how COVID will enter book canons.

Overall, I loved this book. If you don't let yourself get hung up on the small improbabilities (like them planning the heists in detail on google docs and not getting caught immediately by that), then this book is an incredible read and well worth your time.
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Rating: 3.5/5

When I first read the synopsis, it drew me in immediately, and I knew that i had to read it. Portrait of a Thief follows Will Chen and his friends as they hatch a daring plan to return looted Chinese art to their homeland. A fast-paced read, Portrait of a Thief draws you in and is impossible to put down. 

With its lyrical prose and an interesting cast of characters, this book was a solid debut. Li wrote a book that captures the Asian American experience, and as a Chinese American myself, it was so easy to see myself in these characters, all of whom had their own struggles with diaspora.

Although every single one of the characters had their own distinct identities, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing; something that was needed to make them feel real and human. As excited as i was to read a heist book, it didn't get my heart racing and my blood pumping.

Despite this, i still enjoyed the novel and look forward to Grace Li's future releases.
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Thank you NetGalley for this eARC in exchange for an honest review!

2.5/5 stars. Okay, so, I reallyyyyyy wanted to like this book. It was one of my top five most anticipated releases of 2022. I thought the premise was brilliant, and the discussions about colonialism were incredibly important and necessary. I've never read a book that tackles these topics before, so it's great that this exists/will exist to the public next year. But I think this book was not pitched correctly, and as a result, I was disappointed. I'll break this review up into three topics: writing, plot, and characters. (Also, in an attempt to have no spoilers in this review, I will try not to give examples that may be seen as mild spoilers, and I'll try to be super vague otherwise.)

The writing was gorgeous— very atmospheric and ethereal. It was the main reason I kept reading to the end. But it was also EXTREMELY repetitive. Like, UNBELIEVABLY repetitive. I felt like I was reading the same thing over and over and over and over and over again, and that was why I enjoyed the first 30% of the book more than the rest because all of those sentences were new at first. The words "sun" and "light" were repeated hundreds upon hundreds of times, and once I noticed it, I couldn't stop noticing it. The characters were also constantly remembering things that had just happened, so the reader was constantly reminded of what they had just read, and it felt like nothing was happening because everything just kept being repeated. "Will remembered when" and "Irene remembered when" and "Alex remembered when" and "Daniel remembered when" and "Lily remembered when" but the reader also remembered when! I didn't need to be reminded of something they did when I had just read it. I know the characters had larger gaps of time between these events that they were reminiscing about, but the reader did not. The writing was definitely pretty, but it was redundant, and that made it boring to read, unfortunately.

There wasn't one. Okay, well, there was the heist, but the heist wasn't even the main part of the novel, even though that is how the book is being pitched. The heist was just there for the aesthetic, and it only lasted a few pages each time, and the whole process of planning and executing the heist was summarized. Instead, we got hundreds of passages about how the light hit the water or the apartment or the museum or the art or their faces. And we got numerous lines about how Will doesn't know what he wants to do, and how Irene is always right and never fails at anything, and how Will feels like Irene gets everything he has to work for, and how Irene feels like she has to do what Will doesn't and do it better, and how Alex dropped out of college to take a job across the country, and how Daniel and his father never communicate about their feelings, and how Lily only feels like she's alive when she's behind the wheel. And all of those things are fine to state once, twice, even three times. But every chapter? It's like a plot didn't actually exist, and the heists only made a brief appearance from time to time.

This was a very character-driven story, and that's great if the characters have enough substance, but it seemed like their one (1) personality trait (to clarify, each character had a different personality trait) was just repeated endlessly. And that was unfortunate because there was so much room for more. If all the redundant lines were taken out and replaced, the author definitely could have dived deeper into each of these characters. Some of my favorite scenes were when Will and Irene fought, or when Alex and Irene discussed their feelings, or when Will and Lily had their heart-to-heart conversation, or when Daniel and his father finally talked. Those scenes revealed more about these characters than what was going on in their heads, because what was going on in their heads was always the same. It was fine one time, but the reader has a memory too, and they don't need to be reminded of the same things over and over again. I wish we got to see the characters interact more through dialogue, but their conversations were always so short, with long paragraphs in between one spoken word or sentence.

Ultimately, I feel like this book would have been better as a novella, or the author could have dedicated more time to the heist, or the author could have given the characters longer interactions with more dialogue (while also giving us more witty banter and humor). But even though this book ended up not being my cup of tea, I hope it finds its readers because everyone has different tastes!
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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.
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