... renders Cambridge in all its autumnal vibrancy ... adventurous beyond its whirlwind of a plot ... Direct references to the coronavirus punctuate the novel, while its enduring legacies — Zoom calls and habitual social distancing among them — are seamlessly woven into the book’s pages ... Li’s writing feels raw and vulnerable, resonating with many children of immigrants whose desperation to succeed in their family’s eyes is at odds with their quest for unconditional self-worth ... Still, the fact that all five protagonists attend universities ranked among the country’s top 20 makes it difficult to empathize with their anxiety over their futures ... one wonders if the novel would have been more representative of diverse Chinese American experiences had Li included a broader range of educational and class backgrounds ... At times, the writing feels heavy-handed and ekphrastic. Li often gives short sentences and fragments their own lines, aiming to convey stakes that appear momentous but ultimately fall flat ... Sometimes, the sexual tension between characters feels gratuitous ... Li unapologetically weaves Chinese idioms into her novel, like “拔苗助长,” rightfully refusing to provide verbatim translations ... The novel wraps too neatly when the crew finds a way to repatriate the stolen art without actually visiting all five museums. But there’s nevertheless something gratifying about justice served, especially when long overdue. In Portrait of a Thief, Li invites readers along for a ride in the crew’s roving getaway car, promising breathtaking vistas and, more importantly, a reckoning with colonial legacies that have long lingered in the shadows.
An enticing and stimulating escape ... A cinematic heist thriller with a social conscience, Portrait of a Thief is immediately appealing. But as this vivid and precisely crafted novel goes on, readers will be fascinated with the characters and their relationships as well as impressed by Li’s multifaceted exploration of Chinese American identity ... Though they don’t overshadow Portrait of a Thief’s strengths, some weaknesses are also evident. The gang often contemplates their Chinese heritage, but the content of their contemplations rarely evolves, which can make these reflections feel repetitive. More importantly, for such smart people, their approach to the heist is a bit thick ... Fortunately, rooting for these underdogs is tremendous fun, and the novel has a great sense of humor ... Portrait of a Thief is an unlikely heist story made even richer through excellent writing, indelible characters and an engaging anti-colonialist message.
Fascinating albeit uneven ... Li composes gracefully, and her polyphonic quintet is especially convincing as each considers motivations, generational debts, hybrid identities, and complicated on-the-cusp adult relationships. The to-be-expected navel-gazing, alas, repeats and lingers, dulling Li’s brilliant ending.