Cover Image: Portrait of a Thief

Portrait of a Thief

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Member Reviews

Holy moly, I think this is going to be one of my top books for 2022! Everything about it has exceeded my expectations in all the best ways.

Portrait of a Thief was both a wild ride and deeply intimate. The reader gets so close to all of the characters, each one incredibly complex and nuanced. They're bursting with real humanity, the good and the ugly, both as individuals and in the complexity of the relationships between them. You encounter the whole range of connections: siblings, best friends, lovers, parent-to-child. The story really takes place more between them and in their minds than anything else and I loved that. I can't even pick a favorite character. Each one has such depth that it seems impossible to do so. 

The prose is wonderfully written, engaging and relatable without being too casual. The descriptions of art in particular are really beautiful. I was regularly surprised by the events of the plot with many unexpected but perfectly-laid scenes which was a real joy. I love being surprised because I'm one of those readers that's obsessed with guessing what's next. My expectations were passed by in such better ways than I could've guessed!

I have no critiques, no complaints. I can't think of a single reader friend who wouldn't enjoy this book so I'm confident in recommending it to any reader. It's such a great book, I can't believe it's a debut! I can't wait to see what comes from this author in the future. 

Note: I received a free electronic edition of this book via NetGalley in exchange for the honest review above. I would like to thank them, the publisher, and the author for the opportunity to do so.
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I think the biggest issue with this book is marketing. This is more of a literary fiction book than it is a heist thriller. At certain points of the book, I was on the edge of my seat, wanting to know what would happen during these heists, what would happen to the crew, but the gorgeous writing and introspective thoughts on diaspora don’t lend itself to 24/7 thrills. That being said, the writing is gorgeous, especially for a debut.
I did love the crew. All five characters brought something to the table and rarely felt flat. They had their own internal dynamics and while I would’ve liked to see a little more in terms of the romances that were developed, the friendships were 10/10. Also, two of them are sapphic!
There were just a couple points in the novel where I felt some of the internal monologue was repetitive, that we’d already heard this character’s exact thoughts before. And because it felt repetitive, there were things I wish we’d gotten more thoughts on.
I rated this book 3.5 stars. As long as you know what you’re getting into, this is a great read!
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This was a wildly fun, fast-paced heist that exceeded my expectations. I loved each of the main characters; it truly felt like they could just have been my group of college friends. The writing and plot are very cinematic, which helps it move fast. The only small complaint I have is that each individual scene felt a bit long, since the book is told from all five of the friends' perspectives, meaning some scenes had several chapters dedicated to them. But the chapters were short, so it didn't hinder my reading speed much, and I liked hearing from all of the different voices. I'm looking forward the screen adaptation of this one, especially seeing how the conversations on colonialism play out.
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I simply love everything about this book. I felt such a kinship to these characters, and I really related to their struggles with being Asian American and never feeling like you're enough of either.
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I love how the author interweaves dynamic characters caught in the in-between with vibrant settings to create an explosive plot that will shake you to your very core. I love this!
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A museum heist but make it cultural and character driven?

This book jumps into the world of art heists.  So fun right?  I quickly learned though, that this was more about the people and their history/culture than the heist. So if you’re expecting a heist book, this might take time to get in to. 

The root of this story is in the Chinese heritage of the characters, not the actual heist.  That part almost felt secondary to me. 

Lots of POV did get very confusing, I’ll be honest. But at first I loved the intros and how the diff people were introduced. At the end I almost wished we didn’t have diff POV chapters (which I usually loveeeee) because it felt a bit much. 

I liked it. Then I didn’t. Then I did. Then I didn’t. I don’t know. I loved the plot idea and cultural take but something was off. I don’t know what though. 

I read this might be a Netflix show soon. I think this could be amazing in that format.  

Tysm Dutton for this gifted copy.
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This book was quite different than I expected. I think I expected a little more main action and less side action; everything also felt a little too easy. I guess those are my two main complaints about the book. However, there were a lot of things I liked. First, I really enjoyed the commentary on colonialism and art, the Asian dysphoria and how the Asian experience is not a monolith, and parental pressure to succeed. Second, I really liked the characters themselves, especially Irene; I thought they were well-developed and had great chemistry, even if the author leaned a little hard into the archetypes (Will, the leader; Irene, the con artist; Daniel, the thief; Lily, the getaway driver; and Alex, the hacker), it was purposeful and didn't feel forced, especially since the characters didn't fit perfectly within their pre-defined roles. All-in-all, I enjoyed this book, and I look forward to what the author has in store for the future.
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Five brilliant Chinese American students at top universities. Fifty million dollars at stake. Can Will convince his sister and three friends to attempt the impossible, risking it all to steal five ancient Chinese art pieces from museums around the globe without getting caught and return them to China to claim the payout? 

This contemporary heist novel has an interesting angle to inspire the elaborate thefts it chronicles. Ring leader Will Chen is inspired to do what he believes is right by reclaiming Chinese historical artifacts obtained by museums during periods of colonialism and via unethical means. The money is just the icing on the cake, providing he and his co-conspirators can deliver.

I enjoyed the art world details of this novel. The planning and execution of the thefts are involved and suspenseful. Each character possesses a skill critical to the success of the missions and unique motivation that drives participation in the team revealed through rotating narration to include each member’s perspective. 

While much of the story was fast-paced, the story stalled at times with the repetitive revelations of some of the characters. It sometimes felt as though the character had a chapter in the rotation and was going to get that chapter whether they had anything new to say or not, which interrupted the flow for me.

If you’re into heist stories, this one is solid. It has a youthful sense of adventure with some glitz and glamour thrown in to keep things interesting.
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Portrait of a Thief is a fun read! I enjoyed the combination of 5 college students grappling with their Chinese American identities, the heists of course, and the questioning/criticism of museum collection development practices.
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Conceptually, I loved this. The whole idea of a group of Chinese American college kids going on a string of heists to retrieve Chinese art stolen by western museums is fantastic. I found the exploration of identities within the diaspora really compelling and think this shows a lot of promise for a debut novel despite some of the more critical takes I've come away from it with. That aside...

The prose was repetitive to the point of distraction. Most chapters began with a character's full name, the phrase "it went like this" and variations on it were constant refrains, and oftentimes descriptions would be repeated word for word. While the characters did feel distinct from each other in group scenes, the multi-POV format of the book didn't do them any favours. There was little to no change in style from one character's point of view to the others, which made it challenging to root for any of the interpersonal dynamics at play as much as I'd have liked. I also found there to be a lack of much development or character growth throughout the novel which was a letdown since I felt they all had a lot of promise. 

As for the issue of the heist story format... this missed the mark for me. It was slow, largely unexciting, and seemed almost afraid to get into the actual details of the heists themselves. There was also the issue of suspension of disbelief, which is of course a given in novels like this and I'm usually not too bothered, but paired with the lack of investment I had in the characters and dynamics I was unfortunately a lot more keyed into how unrealistic their successes were than I might've been if other elements of the story had been stronger.
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This is the best book I’ve read this year, the most personal one. I have always struggled with my feelings about being Asian American but also not being the child of immigrants and having a very different history than so many other Asian Americans. Grace D. Li has wonderfully and masterfully captured the pain and hope and wonder of being a part of a diaspora and the complex feelings and experiences that come with it. I saw myself in every single character and I felt seen, called out in the best way, and just heard. This is such a wonderful book, words can’t explain how much I loved it.
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Portrait of a Thief is the story of 5 Chinese-American college students who are hired to steal back precious pieces of Chinese art and return them home. At its core, it’s a deep character study about Chinese diaspora and the implications of modern-day imperialism disguised behind a fun art-heist themed plot. While this wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting, I had a fantastic time reading Portrait of a Thief and would happily read more from Grace Li in the future! 

I truly appreciated the perspectives in this book - learning more about how Chinese Americans view their identity and their experiences being stuck between two countries was enlightening. Incorporating these themes while also discussing art history was incredibly smart. There is a complicated history with art/artifacts in modern museums and the inherent greed associated with these private collections. As an art fan and amateur historian, I often feel torn in galleries between fascinated at seeing the works on display and uncomfortable not knowing their origin/rights of sale. I loved how PoaT focused on that and tied it intrinsically with the characters’ motivations. 

This is primarily a character study and I had a great time being inside all of their heads. Daniel was BY FAR my favorite character. I absolutely loved his experience of grappling with his relationship with his father and how that developed as the story progressed. I also really liked Lily’s perspective - making her a driver while she’s metaphorically speeding away from her family settling in America was interesting. I liked how she developed throughout the story. 

Unfortunately, I had some trouble *reading* this book. The writing, while beautiful, was a bit flowery and difficult for me to focus on for extended periods of time. I eventually purchased the audiobook so that I could get through it and get the most out of it. 

In all, I really enjoyed this story. Narratively, I don’t think all of the pieces fully come together, but I found it extremely exciting!
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For a heist book this didn't have much scheming.

This missed the mark for me a bit. I felt like it was over descriptive of mundane things and then the exciting action stuff was skimmed over so briefly! I wanted more! I did like the plot it just kind of left me feeling teased with action.

I also struggled with the characterization with the perspectives changing because it was written in 3rd person.
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I tried reading this book multiple times, in multiple formats, but it just didn't hold my attention. It started off very slowly, which was disappointing for a heist book. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. I am very disappointed since this was one of my most anticipated reads, but I couldn't finish it. I might try it again later, but I've spent over a month trying to read this book and have barely made a dent in it
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“If you were missing something, but you could not even name what it was—did it count? Did it matter?”

PORTRAIT OF A THIEF is a clever and profound literary heist novel that explores art history, diasporic identities, and what it looks like to find belonging when “home” has always felt like an unattainable, ephemeral goal. Five Chinese American young adults are brought together by their various connections - siblings, roommates, childhood friends, past flings - to attempt the impossible: steal back five sculptures from five different museums across Europe and the US and return them to their rightful place in China, where they were originally stolen from. If successful, they will gain a collective fifty million dollars, but more than that, the satisfaction of righting the ongoing wrongs of colonialism.

This book is so beautifully written; even if some parts felt a bit repetitive I was fully immersed in the cinematic experience. Every single chapter had lines that struck a chord as Li slowly peels back the layers of each characters’ complex relationship with their identity. Will, Irene, Lily, Alex, and Daniel all have a unique role to play in the heists (leader, con artist, getaway driver, hacker, and of course, thief) as well as a distinct yet universal experience as a Chinese American. I loved getting to know each of them and seeing their different relationships with each other unfold. The heists were fun and surprisingly realistic, but ultimately this felt like more of a character-driven novel than a thriller. I thought the ending was very satisfying, especially the found family the crew forms and the way each of them are figuring out their path in those years during and right after college. There’s also a sharp, slow-burn romance between two strong women who are deliciously prickly towards each other that I adored. Thanks to Tiny Reparations Books for the review copy!

Content warnings: racism/xenophobia, death of a parent (past)
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An excellent story and an impressive debut. The characters are wonderfully crafted, and their motivations and backgrounds are all interesting. The story combines a fascinating heist plot with a thoughtful element about repatriation and art and culture, making for a literary mystery feeling that is very readable and thought provoking.
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I really enjoyed the concept of stealing back stolen art and reflections on lingering effects of colonialism, but I found that aspects of the book didn’t feel developed to me. I didn’t feel invested in the characters and they didn’t feel distinct from one another. Romances felt like they developed out of no where. There wasn’t that much heist info and the details there were seemed so far fetched and impossible. Overall it was okay but just never gripped me.
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This one was hard to rate. The author and/or publisher really wants it to be an Oceans Eleven type heist story. They blatantly tell us in the description and multiple times in the book.

This is not that. It would have been much better if no one had mentioned the idea. 

What I liked - this is a great treatment of how diaspora and immigration can feel to those stuck between two worlds. The motive of the fight against imperialism by museums is something that deserves a lot more traction than it gets. 

What had more potential than realized:

Instead of the action story this is billed as, it's a completely a character driven book. Even the action was about how it impacted the characters. For instance, racing scenes are all about how the driver feels while racing. Literally with the feel of the steering wheel, pumping heart, etc. And figuratively with freedom, etc. 

There are some good characters, but I wanted more depth. The story only held them together weakly and painted them in broad outlines. And, of course, everyone pairs off by the end. 

Overall, I wish this had "cooked longer." More attention to the characters and less on trying to be a witty caper film in book form could have made this captivating. More description and focus on locations. There are all these amazing places, but the characters just say how awesome it is. We, as readers, aren't there. And we should be.
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The beginning and setting up everyone’s character was a bit slow for me. Once we got to the first heist(and set up for it) things pick up. I am loving all the different connections and wondering where and if any special relationships will be formed between some of the characters. 

I liked where the story ended up but getting there felt long. Especially as an audiobook. It just wasn’t something I was completely drawn to listen to except for certain parts but I think the concept and plot was cool. I just wanted something different or more maybe. There were so many characters and POV that it got a little confusing at times.
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College kids stealing back stolen art! Inspired by true events, returning stolen art & the ongoing effects of colonialism, and the countless comparisons to Ocean’s 11/Fast & Furious! Heist-lover or not, this was highly anticipated by many!!

This has:
- heists that happen in the book, but this book isn’t about heists
- some friendships & family dynamics 
- rumination of cultural identity 
- a pinch of romance

What I loved:
- atmospheric & descriptive language in describing people and settings
- had me mentally planning trips to SF, NYC, Beijing, and Paris
- etches the surface of the effects of colonialism & diasporic longing

What I not-so-loved:
- not much range of experiences/lifestyles among the 5 characters
- repetitive, MC voices get lost in the 5 POVs short chapter format, Character voices all kind of blend in and I kept getting confused on who's POV it was
- not much character development
- idk a lot about heists, but I definitely wouldn’t plan it on zoom & google drive, especially if my dad was in the FBI

This had an amazing concept that immediately draws attention & the willingness to get invested but it was a tall order. For me, the pursuit of delving into heists, art history, and cultural identity all in the story ended with none of the aspects getting fully fleshed out. It was a missed opportunity to expand on nuanced issues & carve out depth in the characters and stories.

It fell a bit flat for me - took me a while to finish & I didn’t find myself reaching for it often. I really wish it pressed more into the intersection of art history and colonialism. But my heist-loving partner enjoyed this read! I wish I knew it was more literary fiction, less heist execution, leaning more light-hearted than serious before jumping into this. Also, remove any & all expectations of Ocean’s 11/Fast and Furious - this isn’t a high-action & sneaky tricks story!

Thank you to NetGalley and Tiny Reparations Books for this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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