- Lilly Schmaltz
Book Review: 'Portrait of a Thief' by Grace D. Li
Five 20-year-olds are about to experience the adventure of a lifetime. Called to Beijing by a mysterious Chinese corporation, they unite as a crew to steal back China’s beloved art pieces from the various museums displaying them. Each member has a complicated relationship with China and their identity as a Chinese-American, but they all hope that they can right history. Splitting the 50 million–dollar reward for the art retrieval is also a pretty attractive offer. Can this group of amateurs pull off the perfect heists?
I have mixed feelings about this book, though mostly positive. I was very excited to read this, and the summary and hype had prepared me for a truly thrilling story. However, it was more subdued than I had expected. The beginning started off very strong, but after the first heist, that plot line became less important. The heists were a bit rushed, but I wasn’t expecting an extremely detailed and accurate description of multiple heists from a young adult fiction novel. For a novel that seemed to be mostly about stealing back art, I had expected a bit more, though. I tend to prefer plot-driven stories. The thrill of stealing back art dissipated as the book progressed and I didn’t feel the rush to turn the pages quickly like before. This was balanced with more insights into the characters
I really enjoyed the five crew members and being able to see how each struggled with finding themselves. They were all connected in different ways and the heist is what brought them together. While they all seemed very dissimilar on the outside, I also saw how they shared similar sentiments about not being American enough nor Chinese enough…how they wanted to prove themselves and claim their Chinese identities. As a Chinese adoptee, I related to a lot of this and their feelings of loss over family and culture.
I wanted to see their relationships a bit more. The characters were complex and deep and their connections with their friends/crew members could have been too. There were some hints about their relationships and tension during the planning, but their interactions felt a bit shallow. The ending was redeeming, and I got to experience each character’s coming-of-self moment as well as their relationships deepen. It was the last chapters that had me hoping for a sequel.
"Portrait of a Thief" is a solid debut novel that explores the complexities of being between two cultures and wanting to claim an identity. While for a novel about art heists it lacks a bit on the thrilling side, it is a unique and creative story about five individuals willing to lose it all to strengthen their connections to their culture and themselves.