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The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

“Portrait of a Thief:” An Underwhelming Experience

Will Chen doesn’t mean to find himself in the middle of an art heist. Nor did he mean to find

himself a thief.


“Portrait of a Thief” by Grace D. Li is much bigger than a typical heist story. Upon pocketing a Chinese art piece in the middle of a frantic heist, Will catches the eye of China’s youngest billionaire, who is intent on reclaiming Chinese artifacts stolen by Western countries. Will is recruited to lead a group of four other young Chinese Americans, creating a haphazard team attempting to mimic a blockbuster heist crew. Their goal? Steal back five carved zodiac busts worth approximately $50 million.


“Portrait of a Thief” is snappy. It reads like a good meal, easily consumed and digested. Li pulls her reader through international car races, police investigations, and art theft. Everything is constantly in motion, making this book hard to put down. It’s easy—and, at times,

fun—to get pulled into the antics that Will and his team find themselves in.


Where the plot is catchy, the characters fall short. It is difficult to understand their motivations. Why would six successful, well-educated strangers leave behind everything and agree to commit international art theft together? Li’s characters display nuance in their personal lives that gets lost in the heist plot. They end up lacking complexity, leading the group’s relationship to feel forced and flat.


Every chapter also follows the same formula: introduce the character’s full name, situate them

within the story, and touch on their personal dilemma. Although I’ll give Li credit. It is impossible to lose track of who is who, but the novel is not long enough nor complex enough to warrant this

repetition. 20 or 30 pages may pass between a given character’s perspective, so this formula

becomes boring and juvenile when repeated so frequently.


Li’s premise is strong, and her genuine passion for the subject is evident in her writing.

She clearly pulls from her own internal dialogue and experiences to detail the innerworkings of

each character. She makes powerful critiques of colonization, identity, belonging, and diaspora through intimate moments with the characters. In the end, however, “Portrait of a Thief” falls flat. I think the novel aimed to do too much. Tackling the relationship between the West and art theft is a daunting task on its own. Li attempts this alongside a stereotypical, tropey heist story. This was not the proper format to convey these critiques.


Ultimately, “Portrait of a Thief” is a well-intentioned story, but not much more than that.

It’s disappointing; while the themes represented throughout are important and complex, they fail

to fully evolve and get lost amongst underdeveloped characters and glaring plot holes.

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