Hello and welcome to another book review!
This book is one of my most anticipated books of the year, and I was so lucky to receive an ARC of this book. I honestly went into this book only for the heists because I loved Ocean Eleven, Time to Hunt and The Thieves. All great heists movies but this book is a lot more with great insight into diaspora and the way it can shape people’s identities and realities.
*Thanks to publisher for sending an ARC of this book to me.
Title: Portrait of a Thief
Author: Grace D. Li
Publisher: *Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: April 14th 2022
Synopsis: Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell in Portrait of a Thief, a lush, lyrical heist novel inspired by the true story of Chinese art vanishing from Western museums, about diaspora, the colonization of art, and the complexity of the Chinese American identity.
I loved this book so much, I did not want it to finish.
Have you ever read a book that you loved so much that you hope they make into a movie but at the same time you hope they don’t because the vision you have in your head cannot be matched? This is me with this book!
This book follows a group of Chinese American students who decided to ‘reclaim’ some Chinese art specifically the 5 Bronze Zodiac heads that are on display in 5 museums around the world. They are offered 50 million dollars by a Chinese corporation to carry out this theft. These 5 students plan a series of heists by watching movies. Yes, I did say that they watched movies.
The book starts with a robbery at the Sackler Museum. This is where we meet Will Chen who is an Art History student at Harvard, he witnessed the robbery and happened to pockets a jade tiger artefact during the robbery. The robbers aware that he did this invites him to help them steal the Zodiacs. With that he decides to put together a group who will assist him with his plan. He brings in Alex Huang, an MIT drop out who now works in Silicon Valley, she helps him hack the Sackler CCTV and deletes the video of him stealing the jade artefact. Will tells his perfect sister Irene Chen about his plan, she is capable of owing any room she walks into. The third person Will invites to join him is Lily Wu, a street car racer and also Irene’s roommate. The final person in their band of thieves is Daniel Liang (who I am personally in love with) who is a pre-med student with steady hands. They all go to Beijing to decide their fate and future.
As we go through the book, we get to see the relationship each of them have with China with most of them just itching for something to tie them to the country and their lost heritage. We get to see the cruelties of the American dream and what it requires to maintain the standard of the Dream passed down from one generation to another. I love how the author was able to weave their identities while still acknowledging the heavy hand of the CCP authoritarian government.
I loved reading Daniel’s relationship with his father, it was the most wholesome thing ever. Just to see them get past their trauma and build a good relationship was so great, I mean his father told him he loves him. Guys, I can tell you, similar to Asian parents, African parents don’t say such words. Also, it was interesting to read Daniel’s unrequited love for Irene, I loved their conversations around his feelings for her and her taking advantage of him because of that, it was open, raw and very emotional. It tore me to pieces.
Finally, the writing was great and I loved it. I have read a number of debut novels and I can tell you that this one takes the prize in terms of its writing. There is a level of serenity and sincerity in the tone of every conversation. Almost like each word hold so much weight that the gap between is an inhalation with you either waiting for a disaster or a simple peaceful exhalation. Both beautiful but a foreshadowing of something more. I just loved it and I cannot wait to see what Grace writes in the future.
In summary, this book was a great insight into museum culture, identity of children in diaspora, reclamation of history, self-identity and hope.
I gave this a 5 out of 5 stars
Thanks for reading