Review: Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

I’d seen very little out there in terms of promotion for Portrait of a Thief, but someone posted about it early in the year and I knew immediately that it was something I had to read.

The idea of reading about a crew of thieves, about discussions around the Chinese diaspora in America, about striving to achieve so much at such a young age, all of it felt like something I would enjoy and relate to.

When my friend, Dawn (@dawn.writesstuff), posted about getting an ARC for this, I immediately begged to know how she got it and what I had to do to get one as well. She very kindly emailed Hachette UK on my behalf and they agreed to send me a copy too. Turns out, asking for ARCs from publishers isn’t super scary.

With that, I dove into Portrait of a Thief. But nothing could prepare me for how deeply the story touched my heart and how I saw myself in these characters.

Title: Portrait of a Thief
Author: Grace D. Li
Format: E-ARC
Pages: 384
Genre: Mystery
Pub Date: April 5, 2022

Book 6 of 2022
Reading Time: 5 hours & 14 minutes
Date Finished: February 24, 2022

Content Warnings: Racism; theft; cultural disrespect; tough parental relationships; mild internal homophobia; mentions of BLM protests; discussions of arrest

What Worked For Me: Character dynamics, realistic portrayal of Chinese sibling dynamics, discussion of societal pressure, discussions of Chinese diaspora, heist plot
What Didn’t Work For Me: One of the romances felt like it came out of left field near the end

5/5

Pretty much all I knew before starting this was that it was a group of Chinese-American college students committing heists. And that they were all super attractive. That was it and it was enough to get me to pick this up.

Portrait of a Thief follows Will and Irene Chen, Daniel Liang, Alex Huang, and Lily Wu as they get recruited to steal several ancient artifacts that were stolen from China hundreds of years ago. As they plan heists around the world, each of them risks their future to rectify a past that has long been erased by a history of colonialism.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how open it is in calling out the history of colonization. How it discusses the ways other countries were pillaged and destroyed, their artifacts stolen, only to be placed in the museums of conquerors as trophies for generations to gawk at.

It reminds me of the scene from Black Panther when Killmonger goes to the Museum of Great Britain and tells the curator that she’s wrong about her artifacts. That everything in there was stolen first. That he’s going to reclaim and return it to its rightful country.

Though I fully don’t condone theft in any way, this kind of Robin Hood-esque stealing to return something to its rightful place does feel right on some level. It’s illegal and thieves should still face the law, and yet I can better understand this kind of theft over anything else.

In line with this, Portrait of a Thief engages in a lot of discussion about what the Chinese-American diaspora feels like. How it’s different depending on how you grew up and what remains around you. It made me think of my own experiences, something entirely different and still similar to what the characters experienced.

Like Daniel, I moved to the US at a later age and had to figure out how the America I saw on TV was different from the country I was living in. My time there, however, only lasted five years and I never had a green card. Nor did I have the desire to return to China.

Like Will and Irene, I understood how different it was for me to get an education there. The unspoken pressure of out-performing everyone else because the stakes are higher when you have to prove yourself more than the white citizens of America. How it feels to always have people look at you to see if you succeed in the way stereotypes dictate.

Like Alex, I knew how it felt to take on this immense goal of providing for my family. The ways in which I worked hard in school and climbed the ladder so I could keep my parents from worrying about me needing money. All the things I did to pad my résumé as best I could before graduating.

And like Lily, I didn’t really have a connection to what it means to be Chinese. Mostly because China isn’t my home. I speak the language and I lived there for 9 years, but I’ve also been away from it for 14 years. There’s a lot about the country’s history I don’t know because I wasn’t educated there.

I saw myself in each of the characters in Portrait of a Thief. Saw myself deeply and felt their pain as they risked their futures for the chance at something more secure, more concrete – something that would let them have more freedom to pursue what made them happy.

It was the discussions of not fitting in fully, of doing everything possible to make every single opportunity work for me, those were the things that cut deeply. The ways these characters talk about their experiences in this area, it reminded me of how hard I worked and how unwilling I was to settle for anything less.

Definitely one of the reasons I slept so little throughout my college career and worked two jobs.

Alex felt like a different version of me, one who had gone into tech, but who wanted so badly to make sure her family was taken care of. One who worked even harder to prove that she was capable so people would notice her. I did that in school and it got me to a lot of good places. Yet, I know that it’s not the best way to go about life either.

As I read Portrait of a Thief, I realized there were things about my time in America that I never thought about processing. Things that affected me, like how hard I wanted to fit in and be accepted while holding on to my meager Chinese roots from years of moving around. How I wished I retained more Mandarin, especially in terms of reading and writing.

Things like how I made sure my grades were always stellar because nothing less was acceptable. Working hard was supposed to create a great future for me. All the time I spent building what I could do so I’d outshine local students and job candidates. I related to how Alex and Irene pushed themselves to do that too.

My experience is so different from these characters, and yet I saw pieces of myself in each of them. Understood their struggles and hurts. Felt the way they simply wanted to feel like they had a claim to something.

In their own ways, they reminded me of me.

There was one scene near the end of the book, where the future was being discussed, that made me cry. It was raw and honest and open, unlike a lot of other books I’ve read with characters this age. It was about more than just growing it. This was a life built and choices about where that would lead.

Portrait of a Thief put into words the feeling of having a cultural history other than American, of how growing up differently changes things, of the desire to have so much that always feels like its just out of reach. I don’t think any other book has expressed that part of me like this has.

I loved how real this was. Though I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Six of Crows, this isn’t really like that outside of heists taking place. Portrait of a Thief is more about choosing a future and coming to terms with one’s true self and desires. It’s also not a fantasy book with magic.

The story had very real things – needing to do homework and go to work, thinking about graduation, plans falling apart, hacking not being as easy as it is in the movies. Even airport security felt real. I loved all of that. The book was grounded and it showed how much all the characters were willing to risk.

Of course, with everyone being in college, there had to be some romance that took place. One of the romantic subplots broke my heart because I knew how that felt. Anyone who knows me and reads this book will know which one I’m talking about. It made me cry and do quite a bit of self-reflection in the days after.

I wouldn’t say that the romance is a big part of this, which is why I’m not giving it a lot of attention. There was one pairing that felt like it came out of nowhere and I’m not really into the fact that it happened. I kind of see how it was being built, but making it romantic felt strange and I prefer to pretend that it didn’t actually happen.

The thing I appreciate about these romances are that none of them happened right after meeting each other. They developed as the characters got to know each other and spent time together committing crime. Not the most conventional way to start dating, but I’m sure it’ll be a fun story for the grandkids some day.

It’s nice to see a contemporary story that allows friendships to unfold first, even if there’s strong attraction, and allows the characters to truly get to know each other in a multitude of ways. I’m far more likely to believe that these relationships will last than those that get together six days after meeting.

I also liked seeing how there were unconventional pairings when it came to the friendships. Who turned to each other when things got tense and how they helped each other through difficult times.

The last thing I have to say, and I hesitate to say this, is that Caucasian readers might have a harder time connecting with or understanding all the things being discussed in the book. Though the story is written to be for any kind of reader, there are things that readers won’t connect with if they haven’t shared these experiences.

It’s not to say that only Chinese or other Asian readers can enjoy this. I firmly believe that it’s a solid book for readers of all races. However, I do think that it’s important to realize that some readers simply won’t understand all the discussions around Chinese diaspora. That does make it a great learning opportunity though.

Portrait of a Thief has solidified its place in my heart. I have no doubt that this will be my favorite book of the year because it’ll be very difficult for anything else to de-throne it.

I talk about Legend by Marie Lu being the first time I felt represented and seen as an Asian reader. That book holds a really special place in my heart because of Day and the fact that Lu was the first Chinese author I saw break into the mainstream publishing industry successfully.

me pointing to my name written on the inside cover of portrait of a thiefIn a similar way, Portrait of a Thief makes me feel seen because it talks about the experience of being Chinese in a Western country. The struggles of having two cultures to balance and so many things requiring hard work. How it’s taken for granted that we’ll excel because we have to and society expects it

I’ve never read a book where the Asian characters truly felt like different pieces of myself. Recognizing myself this much in the experiences of five Chinese characters is something I never thought I’d get. But I’m glad I have it now.

I’m glad that there are girls younger than me who will have the chance to see themselves represented like this. That they can grow up knowing that someone else understands. That they can begin discussions around the Chinese diaspora at an earlier age. It’s something I definitely wish I had.

I dare say this is one of my new favorite books of all time and I will be rereading it for years to come.

(Yes, that’s me with a personalized signed copy)

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