Book: Portrait of A Thief
Author: Grace D. Li
Narrators: Eunice Wong and Austin Wu
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Irene and Alex talk about the heists.
Content Warnings: Colonialism, racism, mention of death of a parent, cultural appropriation, mentions of terminal illness, homophobia, grief, brief mention of police brutality
This was one of my most anticipated releases for 2022, as I’ve been wanting to find more stories about university students for ages (would have been great if I could have found more when I was still in uni, but still) and so when I saw this, university students doing a heist, it sounded so right up my street that I instantly added it to my TBR. Unfortunately, with expectation can come disappointment, and this book has ended up being one of my biggest disappointments of 2022 so far. It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I was anticipating a fast-paced fun heist book, and instead, it was basically 11 hours or so of musing on identity and diaspora, with heisting used a backdrop.
Obviously conversations about disapora and identity and colonialism are really important, but when you’re reading a heist book, you do expect there to be more…..well heists! The heists were all kind of blink and you miss it and a lot more time was dedicated to the planning and musing, and well….the boring bits and instead of the fun, fast-paced read that I thought I was getting, I got a slow, musing kind of read, which is fine if that’s the kind of book you like. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of book I like! Here is a short synopsis of the book:
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 lock-picking 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.
One of the biggest issues I had with this book was actually the narrators, which is not a great thing if you’re listening to an audiobook! Both Eunice Wong and Austin Wu had a very flat style of delivery, which prevented me from becoming fully invested in the story as they both sounded kind of bored reading it. I also found that both of them used far too similar voices for all the characters, which meant I had trouble working out who was speaking at what point. Austin in particular was too quiet when speaking, which meant I found it hard working out what he was actually saying and had to turn my volume up way too loud on his chapters, and his voice for Lily in particular was super grating and sounded nothing like Eunice’s voice for her, which made things slightly confusing.
The writing was super repetitive and it felt like Li was trying too hard to be “lyrical”. I got so bored of the weather being described at the beginning of each chapter that I was fully ready to throw my phone across the room by the end if it was mentioned one more time. Li had several phrases that she would fall back on time and time again, and each chapter was structured in such a similar way in terms of the writing that by about halfway through I could predict how everything was going to go: musing on the weather, long rambling thoughts about disapora, some musings on cars/medicine/art/technology, depending on who the narrator was. I’m sure it’s mostly just a debut author thing and Li will probably grow out of it as she writes more books, but I definitely found the repetitive writing very draining here.
As I mentioned up top, for a heist book, there was surprisingly little heisting! At the beginning of the book, you’re expecting there to be five heists, so I was anticipating non-stop heisting action and for the heists to be the major part of the book. Instead, each of the heists were only a couple of pages each, it was definitely blink and you’d miss it kind of stuff and given that the heists were what I picked up the book for, I wasn’t best pleased that we got about five pages of heist action total, and several hundred of musings about identity diaspora. I did initially find the conversations about diaspora and identity interesting, but it was so constant, that after a while I just got bored. I also felt like the characters had such similar feelings about their relationships to China, aside from Lily who was a little bit more uncertain, it would have been nice if we’d been able to explore a wider range of feelings about diaspora within the group.
The way the group planned the heist was completely ridiculous, with the whole using Zoom and Google Docs and encrypted chat rooms that the FBI WOULD NEVER be able to find, if they had done this in real life, I’m sure they would have been caught a whole lot sooner. I don’t really mind the idea that college students wouldn’t necessarily be super smart about being international art thieves, but it felt like Li wanted us to take the group more seriously than the narrative portrayed them to be.
It was a very slow paced story which meant that the book felt a lot longer than it actually was, 11 hours for an audiobook is on the shorter side for me and yet it felt more like a 15 or 16 hour audiobook because everything was just moving SO SLOWLY. The only bright side was that the chapters were relatively short, I think if they’d been any longer, the pace would have been unbearably slow, as it was, it was just annoyingly slow.
The characters all felt kind of flat, it was like the author had decided on their initial archetypes of con artist, thief, getaway driver, hacker and mastermind and didn’t particularly feel like developing them much beyond their archetypes. It didn’t help that their character archetypes were repeated over and over again until you just wanted scream WE GET IT. It’s always difficult when you have such a big cast to develop them all fully, but I would have appreciated it if at least one or two of them had been developed beyond their particular archetype.
The group dynamic was also a bit off: it felt like Li was trying to go for the found family vibes, but just didn’t quite get there. There were pairs within the group that got on well but on the whole it definitely did feel like five strangers (even though there were some in the group who did know each other/were related) thrown together for a job, who didn’t even seem to like each other much, let alone thought of each other as family, so when towards the end of the book, they were throwing that around, I just couldn’t buy it.
Having said this, the one relationship in the book that did feel really well done was the one between Daniel and his father. That whole arc of the two of them finding their way back to each other and reconciling the hurt and distance that had happened over the years was probably the best done arc of the whole book.
The fact that there was a group of five of them and that four of the five pair up and one has unrequited feelings for someone in the group definitely had me eye-rolling quite a bit. Seriously? In a group of five people everyone must have a romantic partner? REALLY? The only platonic friendship between a guy and girl in this was Lily and Daniel, and I guess Alex and Will but they had already dated previously. PLATONIC FRIENDSHIPS BETWEEN PEOPLE OF OPPOSITE GENDERS EXISTS DAMN IT.
I also had kind of mixed feelings about the whole Alex/Irene pairing because Irene was so awful to Alex for ages just for being Will’s ex (when they went on like two dates!), which seemed like a serious overreaction, and then she suddenly does an about turn and really likes Alex? It just didn’t feel particularly well built up and though I wanted to root for them as a couple, I just couldn’t because Irene was so awful in the beginning. I also felt like there was a missed opportunity with Will and Daniel? Will and Lily seemed to be paired up for no other reason than that Lily was the other unattached girl, whereas it certainly seemed like the author was setting up Daniel to have feelings for Will from the small insights we got into their childhood, till she suddenly changed it to Irene instead. I don’t know, I just felt a lot more chemistry between Daniel and Will than Will and Lily!
I was interested in the whole art repatriation thing as I did cover repatriation a little during my History degree, particularly during the module I did on Native American history, and I was hoping it would be explored a bit more, but it did all feel very surface level.
There’s a part of the book where Lily makes a crack about art degrees, I can’t remember exactly what the line was but it was definitely something along the lines of art majors don’t know anything, or don’t understand anything practical, and I just didn’t find it particularly funny. I wish we would stop pitting humanities and STEM degree subjects against each other and arguing that humanities degrees are worthless because it’s just tiring and stupid: both subject areas are useful in different ways and humanities students aren’t lesser because they didn’t do a STEM subject (rant over: I just have got a lot of this over the years as someone who studied humanities subjects and it gets tiring).
I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled by the pandemic references, I’ve managed to successfully avoid most pandemic related media, and I just don’t think it’s massively necessary? It’s fiction, we can pretend the pandemic didn’t happen in your fictional version of 2021/2022!
I didn’t really understand why China Poly would recruit a bunch of university students to carry out such a high profile job, they have so much money they could easily hire pros, it didn’t make sense that they would choose amateurs to carry out a job that was clearly so important for them.
Li did capture the uncertainty about the future that many uni students feel, especially approaching graduation, very well which I’m assuming is because she still is a student herself! I did wonder why all of the group had to be from top universities though, I’m sure you could find hackers, thieves, con artists and getaway drivers outside of major top US universities.
Overall, Portrait of A Thief ended up being quite disappointing for me. It was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting it to be. I thought I was getting a fast paced, action packed heist story and it ended up being a story about identity with some heisting in the background. I’m sure Li will greatly improve her characterisation, pacing and writing as she gets more experience, and it wasn’t a terrible debut by any means, it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I think this is another case of too high expectations leading to disappointment.
My Rating: 3/5
I’m a little behind on my reviews because we moved house and I misplaced one of my review notebooks (which had the notes for this review in!) and I only just found it, so bear with me whilst I catch up! My next review will be of When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill, which I’ve already read and done my notes for, so that one should be up fairly soon.