Review: Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

Portrait of a Thief is one of my most anticipated reads of 2022 period. I love the comp titles of “The Farewell” and “Oceans 8”. Not only did this deliver heists – with a dose of realism – but also a nuanced look at identity, diaspora feelings, and explorations of family. If you love any of that, you need to read this one. Keep reading this book review for my full thoughts.


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 that has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a shadowy Chinese corporation 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 conman: Irene Chen, Will’s sister and 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 student 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.


(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)

Portrait of a Thief swept me away. This multiple POV debut is full of heists and as someone who grew up watching the Oceans movies, I am a fan. But at the same time, what I ended up loving was the way Li examines identity. The ways people see pieces of us – Chinese or American. This grey space between which leaves us with a loss of belonging. This examination not only resonated with me, but I enjoyed the character evolution as they think of themselves.

It may begin with an itch for something else. A desire for change, because what drives a person to join a heist? But it quickly becomes about the weight of family dreams on our shoulders. The ways we swim in a world which judges us only on what they see. How it is to navigate a relationship with what marks us. All the pieces that seem like they will always be missing from our history and lives. In Portrait of a Thief, Li tells a story about the different ways each of us see one another. The images we see and the edges others bring out.

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At the same time, Portrait of a Thief discusses the acquisitions and thefts of at. The intricate dance of ownership and donations. I adored how much Li leans into this element while also deeply exploring identity and character. This is a must read and is going on my shelf of favorites. Find Portrait of a Thief on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org & The Book Depository.


What is your favorite book that takes place in a museum?

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