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Grace D. Li

Teoksen Portrait of a Thief: A Novel tekijä

1 Work 612 jäsentä 19 arvostelua

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Image credit: Grace D. Li / Photo Credit: Yi Li

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Portrait of a Thief: A Novel (2022) 612 kappaletta

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I read this due to its Edgar nomination, even though I felt going in it was not my cup of tea.It is very much Ocean’s eleven meets fast and the furious.
While I enjoyed the bits about Chinese culture and art and the discussion of colonialism and capitalism as they are represented in museum collections, I felt overall it was too formulaic.
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cspiwak | 18 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Mar 6, 2024 |
I've declared this "heist book summer" and this book ended up in my recommendations. It's too introspective for me right now, so I didn't get into it.
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Greenfrog342 | 18 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jan 22, 2024 |
By now, it should be no surprise to anyone that I love a good heist/con story, so when I heard of Portrait of a Thief, I just knew I had to read it.

I loved that this was not just a heist book (which, anyway would have been enough for me!), but it was also a fascinating character exploration AND a critique of Western imperialism and its lingering effects today. As five Chinese American students set out to retrieve ancient Chinese artefacts from Western museums in order to return them to the Chinese people, they didn't just take me along on their highly illegal and dangerous quest but also kickstarted some deeper reflections on art, museums and colonialism.

The characters were great, and I loved how well each of them was characterised as an individual. The alternating POVs worked really well to give us an insight into each character's thoughts, motivation, fears and desires, and I really enjoyed the wide spectrum of experiences that was portrayed here. Will, Irene, Lily, Alex and Daniel all come from different backgrounds and experience their culture and their relationship with both America and China differently, with all their complexity and sometimes contradictions, reflecting the many, many experiences of people who call more than one country "home".

But their struggle with identity isn't limited to their sense of belonging, and I loved how universal some of the characters' reflections felt: from following your passions to the pressures coming from social and family expectations to discovering and accepting who you really are, I could recognise many of my own conversations with friends and loved ones. Of course, I didn't try robbing several museums as a way of working through this but I enjoyed seeing our protagonists undertake this journey.

Where this book fell a bit short for me though was in the pacing. Although I loved the introspection, several passages felt very repetitive, with characters going over the same things over and over again. The heist planning sections were similarly slow and surprisingly underwhelming, with most being resolved with a quick Zoom call, and I missed some of the excitement that is typically found in this genre. Of course none of it is realistic, nor would I want it to be, but I would have enjoyed this even more if there had been a slightly faster pace and fewer repetitions. I did like the references to the pandemic and lockdowns, which were handled very delicately and helped ground the story in simil-reality, and the banter between various characters made me smile more than once.

Overall, Portrait of a Thief is a fantastic debut. Despite some minor flaws, it's an incredibly well-written and thoughtful heist novel that is sure to spark some brilliant discussions on a wide range of themes.

I received an e-arc of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.
… (lisätietoja)
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bookforthought | 18 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Nov 7, 2023 |
This book really frustrated me because it had so much potential. I'm writing this a few weeks after finishing it, so I hope I get the details right. It's a "thriller" about a group of college students who are contracted by a Chinese firm to steal back Chinese antiquities from western museums. The group are extremely incompetent and have never done any kind of heist before, but somehow they are offered 50 million dollars ! (imagine Dr. Evil with his pinky up) to get these items back on behalf of some Chinese billionaire.

I had some issues with this book. The implausible plot is one thing, but on its own that could have been kind of fun and humorous. My main issues had to do with the characters and the extremely problematic way the theme of museums and their histories of colonialism was handled. (It's a good topic, and one that a novelist should do justice to! In fact, I just read Tania James's novel Loot, and she does a pretty great job, though it's about private collectors, not museums.)

The characterization is an issue that many readers have raised: these five Chinese American college students are all basically interchangeable. It was hard to keep track of whose thoughts were whose, and even harder to care. The characters are bland, indistinguishable, privileged, and don't do much to illuminate the diversity of the Chinese diaspora in the US (they all go to Ivy or near-Ivy schools, for one thing). A few reviews suggest there are some subtle clues about differences in class, language, and city/region of origin, but those are not made apparent to a European American (or presumably any non-Chinese/Chinese American) readership. Also, with the exception of Daniel the characters are all unlikeable/irritating for various reasons, and their motivations are not well developed at all.

But my bigger problem is just that this book is historically and conceptually lazy. It really makes me wonder what they are teaching in the art history department at Duke! (Just kidding, it's an outstanding art history department--but the author seems to have walked away from her education there with a really simplistic understanding of the history of museums.)

First of all, NO, "all" items in western museums are not "stolen"! Many of them were purchased completely legally. Is there a lot of work to do on figuring out which ones? Yes. But to perpetuate this chestnut is really dishonest. Millions (probably more like tens of millions?!) of items in museums around the world were acquired under legal circumstances.

Second, the book does little to differentiate among strata of "illegal" acquisition. For every smash-and-grab job like the destruction of the Summer Palace (the book's subject), there are more complex situations. Please do not lump these all together! It's very possible to make a cogent case for the return of (say) the Parthenon Marbles while acknowledging that the circumstances are VERY different to how the Benin bronzes (on view just downstairs from them) were acquired. It's not like Lord Elgin ran in with a ski mask on and dashed off with 2000 years of Greek patrimony in the middle of the night lol. The Summer Palace and the Benin Punitive Expedition were looting. But many artifacts that were problematically acquired were not looted in the way Li wants you to think they were. It's not all the same. But this book acts like it's all the same.

Finally, the focus on China as a poor-me wronged party was kind of overdone. The Chinese government under Mao and Communism actively sought to destroy its own cultural patrimony. Buddhist temples and unique artifacts were smashed to rubble in the Cultural Revolution--no Britons required. The book also ignores China's historical/ongoing repression against subject peoples. China got off with a major hall pass, while the author assumes all European countries are/were basically evil empires. (I am in NO way justifying or apologizing for European imperialism. But China was/is an empire, too. It's not *just* a white person thing to dominate other cultures/peoples and destroy/take their nice things. I'm also not saying that a country that does bad things shouldn't complain about having bad things done to it. But more nuance addressing China's difficult histories would have been nice.)

I think with a little more nuance around these issues, this could have been a fun read, and the necessary suspension of disbelief would have been more willing. I am kind of sad, because I am looking for a fun novel of ideas about museums that I can assign to my students, and I thought this would fit the bill. But I think I would spend too much time correcting the misperceptions for it to be useful.
… (lisätietoja)
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sansmerci | 18 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Sep 28, 2023 |



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