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Review: Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

Title: Portrait of a Thief
Author: Grace D. Li
Year published: 2022
Category: Adult fiction
Pages: 384 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location: (my 2022 Google Reading map)USA (NC, CA, MA, NY, TX), China, Sweden, France

SummaryOcean'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.

History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now. 

Will Chen plans to steal them back.

A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents' American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago. 

His crew is every heist archetype one can imag­ine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they've cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down. 

Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they've dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted at­tempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.

Review:  There is something about this book that appealed to me from the moment I heard about it on another blog (huge apologies to the person since I can't remember where I first read about it). What is it about a heist that I think will make a good story? I don't know, but this novel worked for me. And, I really like the cover; it's evocative of the story within.

I like the combination of history, art, friendship, intrigue, and self identity (Chinese Americans living in the US, but feeling an inner pull from China). This isn't just a heist; we get to learn about Chinese history, colonialism and colonial powers and their culture stealing, how to plan a good museum break in, and how to trust a group of people upon whom your life depends. It's also about friendship and relationships.

At its core this is a story of a heist (or two or three) and it's fun to read of their planning and the execution. However, I think there could have been more of that if the reader is looking for an Oceans Eleven type of book. But this isn't quite that. It's a bunch of heist, but not quite enough, mixed in with the other stuff. 

Challenges for which this counts:
  • Literary Escapes--China and Sweden
  • Popsugar--New York and Chaoyang (Beijing) are sister cities

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