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  • Writer's pictureHannah Zunic

Put That Thing Back Where It Came From: A Review of Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

Hello, Book Nerds! Welcome back to Reading Has Ruined My Life or welcome if you are new. As always, my name is Hannah and I am your captain on this journey into my bookcases. Special hello to Honduras. It’s nice to see y’all.

Bears waving.
How's everyone doing today?

As promised, I bring you an actual review today. I finally finished the book I was reading and I’m ready to review it! So please welcome to the stage Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li!

Book cover of Portrait of a Thief by Grace D Li.

I need more heist books in my life. If you have any recommendations for me please drop them in the comments down below; I love a good heist novel. You can also send them my way on RHRML's new Instagram page! Make sure to follow the blog @ReadingHasRuinedMyLife on Instagram. Back to Portrait of a Thief though.

I have a lot of mixed emotions regarding this one. There are a lot of parts I really enjoyed, yet there were times it kept losing me. We’ll get to all that in a few minutes, but first we need the synopsis.

As always, a spoiler alert is in order. If you’ve been here before then you know I love to spoil the entirety of the book in question. Today is no different so you’ve been warned.

Meet Will Chen, an Art History major at Harvard and future international art thief. During his senior year of college, he gets the job opportunity of a life time: steal back some stolen Chinese art and receive 50-million dollars. Hello, where do I sign up! (FBI, that is a joke. I say that in complete jest. I have no want or desire to rob a museum. Please take me off your watch list. I am not threat to museums. Absolutely love museums.)

Indiana Jones.
I have no plans to go Indian Jones on a museum.

Anyway, Will is going to need some help if he wants to rob five of the biggest museums in the world. Yes, that’s right, Will has to rob five museums or else he won’t get his 50-million dollars. He needs to steal back the five missing Zodiac Heads from China’s Old Summer Palace. These items were looted centuries ago and it’s finally time for them to return home. Will still needs that crew though so he enlists his sister Irene, his best friend Daniel, his sister’s roommate Lily, and a girl named Alex who he met on Tinder when he was freshman.

Squad up!

It seems like an old crew but let me explain. Will is the leader. Irene is the con artist. Daniel is the main thief. Lily is the getaway driver. And Alex is the tech genius. Together they make up our squad. But will they succeed? Will they get caught or will they make it out of this as multi-millionaires?

Now as I said, I kept going back and forth on this one. For a while there was something about Portrait of a Thief that I didn’t like but I couldn’t put my finger on. I couldn’t figure out if it was the pacing or the characters or what. But then I got it. The descriptions of this book were hit or miss. There was a lot of great imagery in the book. The descriptions of the art work were beautiful. But few other things had that level of detail.

I couldn’t tell you much about the heist planning. Nor much about what the characters look like. Museums and Alex’s family’s restaurant yes, but most other things no. A heist book relies heavily on descriptions. Readers need to know all the details the main characters are picking up on. They need to know where security cameras are, the escape routes, every single part of the plan; these are all necessary details in heist books. Yet Portrait of a Thief lacks these details. It detracts from the story. I felt I was missing too much important information.

Schitts Creek- disappointing.
Honestly disappointing.

Speaking about heists and planning aspects, I couldn’t figure out why this inexperienced group of 20-somethings, who for the most part weren’t even out of college yet, were chosen to pull this off. This heist is a massive undertaking, and the person who hires them has billions and could have easily hired professionals to steal back the art but chooses not to. It makes no sense. Between the lack of descriptions, odd motivations from the financier, and honestly the lack of heist in general, most of the book felt lacking. Portrait of a Thief is pitched as Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell but it’s pretty far from that. This isn’t a heist novel with perfect plans to outsmart cops and federal agents every step of the way. It’s a lot more of young adults bickering and somehow managing to steal priceless art from some of the world’s top museums in a smash-and-grab. Yeah, the heists are not the highlight of this heist novel.

Michael Scott cringe face.
Not the words you want to hear about a heist novel.

The pacing also could have been improved upon. It too was hit or miss. I felt it was the worst in the end. There were some time skips that occurred which were hard to take in as it was difficult to figure out just how much time had passed; they did not fit in with the rest of the novel. That wasn’t the only issue with the pacing though. Things happened too fast too quickly and then nothing happened for quite some time. This happened every chapter.

Despite these issues, this book was still pretty good. I was amused the entire time and enjoyed the complexity of the characters. All five of the main characters struggle in different ways; readers can easily find a character to latch onto and identify with.

I should note that a large part of this book is about the pressure felt by children in immigrant families to be successful and the identity issues they feel when strung between two incredibly different cultures; specifically those of Chinese descent. I do not feel qualified to talk much about this aspect and deem it well written or not. I personally think it’s well done, but I am not someone who should be passing judgment on this aspect. Reviews written by readers of Chinese descent tend to view this part of the novel as incredibly well written and deeply appreciate the representation Portrait of a Thief brings. Again, I do not feel qualified to properly discuss this topic and highly recommend reading reviews by readers who are of Chinese descent.

I can talk about colonialism though. Colonialism is a big theme within Portrait of a Thief. The idea of an art heist in order to talk about the ownership and power of art is so simple yet genius. History has always been told by conquerors, and what do they do? Keep the spoils of war AKA art. As of late there have been many articles about museums keeping looted works of art, and this novel adds many great points to the conversation. It opens up discussions on the matter that many people probably wouldn’t have without. For that I praise this novel.

Overall this was a decent debut. I felt that there were issues with the technical aspects of the novel, but the themes and discussions were poignant. Portrait of a Thief is already in development at Netflix to be turned into a TV series. I feel television is a great vehicle for this novel. I believe the world Grace D. Li has crafted will be able to flourish as a show. There will be more time for character relations to be fleshed out, the pacing fixed, details expanded upon; I have high hopes for the future adaption. And yes, when it finally premieres years from now, I will review it.

And with that, I must bid you all adieu. I shall see you next with another great post. I don’t know what it will be, it’ll be a surprise for us all, but I’ll see you then!

Until next time, stay safe, wash your hands, and read some good books for me.

Bears waving.
See y'all then, bye!

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