Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear
Bantam Books, 1980

I had started high school when I read Jean Auel’s first novel in the Earth’s Children series, but I don’t know if it was the 9th grade or the 13th. It was my grandmother’s copy — she bought a lot of paperbacks — but I don’t recall if it was one she’d bought recently or had had for a couple of years.

What I do remember is that it wasn’t usual for me to be reading adult books of that size and, so, that alone was a thrill. And that’s partly why I remember that I was reading it on a Sunday because I remember being amazed at how far along my bookmark was by dinner-time, even though I was usually reading books that were much shorter.

Which is the reason that I chose to start reading this on a Sunday as well, although Sundays are certainly not any longer the quiet lose-yourself-completely-in-a-book solitary days that I counted on as a kid. So I only ended up reading 100 pages that first day. And although I enjoyed it, I didn’t rip through it as I did so many years earlier.

As a younger reader, you might think that I was most struck by the (relatively) explicit s*x scenes in this novel, but no: even at that time, that was old news, thanks to Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran (also thanks to my grandmother’s bookshelves). What I remember being so amazed by in The Clan of the Cave Bear was Ayla’s independence, her determination and her strength. I’d always loved the whole Orphan Thing, from Pippi to Anne, so Ayla was the next best thing in an adult novel.

Mix that element of insta-appeal with some lingering fascination rooted in a Made-for-TV movie that I’d watched a few times, something Sissy-Spacek-ish or Jane-Fonda-ish, focussed on a healer/midwife who roamed the woods and plucked leafy miracles from the soil, somewhere Appalachia-ish? So those two fascinations — combined with my morbid near-teenager-ish Worse-Case-Scenario-Survivalist streak — gave this book tremendous appeal for me. I absolutely inhaled those pages.

And then? I’m not sure. Sometime between my Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele reading years and present day, I went through a snobbish period. And, somewhere in that spell, I missed reading the rest of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children Series. I was working in a bookstore when the publishing furor that accompanied her release of The Plains of Passage (1990) erupted, but I think I was just entering said Snobbish Stage and I never followed the series further. I got over my Snobbish stage in enough time to read The DaVinci Code. (I know, I probably just lost half of my readership with that single sentence. I haven’t succumbed to Twilight yet, if that helps.) But I never picked Jean Auel’s saga up again.

It was a perfect choice for my final Shelf Discovery Challenge Read though, because it was one of the first truly adult books that I read. (Yes, of course I read the V.C. Andrews books that Lizzie discusses too, but I didn’t hang onto my grandmother’s copies of those, so they weren’t candidates for re-reading. Thankfully?) But I was also just plain curious about re-reading it.

By now it’s gotten lumped in my Reader’s Brain with the Outlander series, Colleen McCullough’s sagas, and Rosamund Pilcher’s novels: popular books that seem to connect with readers who more often choose literary than commercial fiction. This overlap fascinates me.

As does the question of whether novels like these, had they been written by men, would be taken more seriously. I thought of Michener many times as I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear and while no work of his was nominated for the Booker, he had a reputation for writing serious fiction. Some might argue that his voluminous research occasionally overtook the plot and characterization, and that’s equally true of Jean Auel’s narrative although Ayla remains at the heart of the story.

“Many ages before, men and women, far more primitive than Brun and his five hunters, learned to compete for game with four-legged predators by watching and copying their methods. They saw, for example, how wolves, working together, could bring down prey many times larger and more powerful than themselves. Over time, using tools and weapons rather than claws and fangs, they learned that by cooperating, they, too, could hunt the large beasts that shared their environment. It prodded them along their evolutionary journey.”

Agreed that, if you don’t find the setting interesting, or theorizing about evolution mixed with tribal politics, detailed descriptions of how a medicine woman determined whether or not a newly discovered leaf was poisonous or edible (or something in-between) followed by a play-by-play hunting ritual…well, you’re probably not going to enjoy this book. And, if you like your fiction multi-layered, and only that will do, then you’re going to be frustrated with the nuts-and-bolts (or, should I say, leaves-and-shoots) linear narrative here. But Auel offers a good read all the same.

This is the last of my Shelf Discovery Reading Saturdays, but I will be continuing the theme of Kidlit and YA reading in the Saturdays to come with selections for Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. I’ll share the list next Saturday and hope you find it as exciting as I do.

Many thanks to our Shelf Discovery host for encouraging me to pick up so many delicious re-reads.