R14. The Earth's Children (series): The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel

Year Published: 2011
Pages: 757

First Sentence: The band of travelers walked along the path between the clear sparkling water of Grass River and the black-streaked white limestone cliff, following the trail that paralleled the right bank.

Good God. So I know that my reading taste has evolved in the last half dozen years or a decade or the midpoint between the two or whenever it was that I read Shelters of Stone. And based on the first sentence that I quoted in my review of the rest of this series, Jean M. Auel has never been what I’d consider a great writer (I’m sorry, but four adjectives in one sentence is too many). But The Land of Painted Caves was shockingly bad.

Further: I try to stay away from Goodreads reviews and ratings as much as I can, because I don’t want other people’s opinions to colour my own, and also because the ratings there are ridiculously inflated in weird ways. I did happen to glance at what was going on for this book, and everyone hated it. I assumed that they’d just forgotten how trashy (and I’m using “trash” in the most affectionate sense of the word) the other books were. This was ... wrongheaded of me.

The Earth’s Children series is the story of Ayla, the world’s first Mary Sue (not literature’s first, of course). In The Clan of the Cave Bear, her family is killed by an earthquake, and she’s raised by a group of Neanderthals. Because the science on Neanderthals wasn’t as advanced in 1980 as it is now, Auel gets some things wrong, but the book is creative and ultimately ends up being the best in the series as far as I’m concerned. Ayla is sent away from the Clan (the Neanderthals’ name for themselves) in The Valley of Horses, and spends most of that book living alone and domesticating various animals. She ends up meeting Jondalar, the first human man she’s ever seen, and of course the love of her life, at the end of that book. They leave the valley in The Mammoth Hunters and are taken in by said mammoth hunters. They live with this group of people for some time, and have this weird love triangle with another man because Ayla and Jondalar suck at communicating with each other despite the fact that Ayla has an amazing gift for languages, including body language. The Plains of Passage covers their journey back to Jondalar’s people, across pretty much the entire European continent. And then The Shelters of Stone is the book where Ayla and Jondalar settle back in his homeland and get married and so on. Besides Ayla and Jondalar’s constant boning, I have no memory of disliking any of those books, so I’m pretty baffled as to what went so wrong with The Land of Painted Caves.

I would tell you what happens in the book, except that it sums up as “pretty much nothing.” Ayla trains to become a zelandoni (a religious leader/shaman type of figure, basically, as well as a healer, although she already was one) and travels around looking at cave paintings. Auel has clearly seen all these caves, but given that she describes Ayla becoming bored while touring them, I can’t imagine how she would think the reader would find the endless cave descriptions interesting, and I actually do think that cave paintings are amazing. Then Ayla becomes a zelandoni and Jondalar has been sneaking around with another woman so she tries to kill herself but Jondalar loves her so much that she doesn’t die. It is, yes, absurd.

Our heroine is joined, as always, by Jondalar, and now also her daughter Jonayla (still hate that name) and then a cast of thousands who are almost all just names on the page when it comes to character development. A better writer may have been able to corral all of these characters and make them come alive, because God knows there was enough room to do so, but as it is they’re often picked up and then dropped and never mentioned again, so it’s pretty frustrating and unnecessary. The book could’ve been half as long without losing any content, is what I’m saying.

Anyway I’ve said more than I need to about this. If you enjoyed the rest of the series, stay away. I really don’t think there needed to be another book after The Shelters of Stone anyway, especially since Auel doesn’t build to some sort of Neanderthal vs. Cro-Magnon war the way she foreshadowed in previous books. If you are curious about the rest of the series, stop before you get to this one. If you haven’t read the rest of the series, why would you start with the last book?  Bah!

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