Author: Grace D. Li
Pub. Date: Apr. 2022 (read Apr. 2022 on Audible)
I’ve seen Portrait of a Thief popping up a few places, but for some reason I wasn’t very interested in it until I learned it was being published under Tiny Rep Books, which is Phoebe Robinson’s publishing imprint. I love Phoebe Robinson, so I took another look at the synopsis and discovered it’s about a heist and is actually fascinating! The museum heist vibes reminded me of The Feather Thief, which is non fiction that I read a few years ago and really liked, so I decided to pick up the audio version of Portrait of a Thief and quickly devoured it over one long weekend.
The comparisons to The Feather Thief pretty much end after the words “museum heist”. Portrait of a Thief is a fictional account of a 5 person crew of Chinese-American university students who decide to try and steal back a bunch of Chinese Art that has been taken by western countries throughout history as part of the spoils of war. It begs a very interesting question about art and museums and who should really be the keeper of history. The historical narrative and record has always been determined by the victors of war and colonialism, but in more enlightened times, should we re-examine who the purveyors of those artifacts are in a modern world?
This is the biggest theme raised within the book, but we also get to know 5 protagonists of Chinese ancestry and get to explore what it means to be both Asian and American – to belong to multiple identities, but to struggle to access either. Art frames the plot, but it’s really a story about diaspora.
I read this immediately prior to reading Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou, and though I really liked Portrait of a Thief when I read it, I’m struggling to review it now because Disorientation attempts something similar but totally different. Both books are a lot of fun and also slightly insane, but they are too entirely different beasts, so it’s unfair to compare them. Portrait of a Thief doesn’t strike me as such a strong read having finished Disorientation, but I’ll do my best to review it justly.
The element of fun in Portrait of a Thief comes from the heists. Its ludicrous to think of a bunch of university students robbing some of the most prestigious museums in the world, but after having read The Feather Thief, I have to conclude that it’s definitely possible, especially if you have limited connections to tie you to the crime. Without concrete DNA or video evidence, how are you really going to get caught as long as you make it out of the building before the cops arrive? (it’s probably a lot more complicated than this, but I can hypothesize).
I also liked that Portrait of a Thief has 5 very different, but interesting characters. I loved the exploration of the Chinese diaspora, but I have to admit that none of the characters really had as much characterization as I would have liked. It’s a great book, but beyond the initial presentation of the main theme – who owns art – I found the author didn’t actually explore the idea in as much depth as I would have liked. She doesn’t fall into the trap of telling instead of showing, which I always applaud in a debut. The reader is left to consider their own conclusions, I just wanted a little bit more meat to chew on while I contemplated this.
The characters, though interesting, were sadly a bit one-dimensional. The audiobook was well narrated, with the exception of how the male narrator read the female characters. I despised how meek and breathy he made the women sound and it really bothered me. They had both a female and male narrator, so I don’t understand why they didn’t just have the female narrator read the dialogue in the male narrator scenes. Furthermore, I wish this book had had 5 narrators, one for each character. I know this probably complicates production and budget, but I think it would have taken this audiobook from good to great.
Anyways, despite my complaints, I do think this is a very strong debut novel with an excellent premise. It’s not perfect and I’m definitely nitpicking having followed it up with Disorientation, but still a great book and I would recommend!