Title: The Land of Painted Caves
Author: Jean Auel
Synopsis (Courtesy of Indiebound): “The highly anticipated sixth book of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children® series, The Land of Painted Caves, is the culmination fans have been waiting for. Continuing the story of Ayla and Jondalar, Auel combines her brilliant narrative skills and appealing characters with a remarkable re-creation of the way life was lived more than 25,000 years ago.”
Thoughts: The assumption is that anyone even remotely interested in this novel has read at least one or two of the Earth’s Children series, if not all five previous novels. If you have not read them, please be warned that spoilers may abound.
The Land of Painted Caves remains true to Ms. Auel’s vision, following Ayla on her path from outsider to one of the leaders of the Zelandonii. In true Ayla fashion, she blazes her own path, fostering the advent of monogamy, parental rights, and even art appreciation. For those who have read the first five novels, the ending is anything but a surprise. Ms. Auel has been leading fans along this path for decades, to the point where there is only one conclusion that would be remotely acceptable. Unfortunately, with this all-but-foregone conclusion already known, there is very little in the way of tension and strife to drive the plot. The story itself, while fun and a blast from the past, remains flat and tedious. It has none of the excitement of the first five novels, when Ayla’s fate was less than certain.
Also missing is Jondalar. While he is still an important character as Ayla’s other half, he fades to the background in this novel, and the story suffers. His struggles and concerns were always a fascinating balance to Ayla’s, but this novel has very little of that. Instead, what little conflict that exists feels more like a rehash of The Mammoth Hunters than anything new.
Speaking of which, there is a definite feel of a series finale to this novel. Ayla spends a lot of time reminiscing about almost everything that happens in The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of Horses. In fact, Ms. Auel brings back several characters seen in The Mammoth Hunters as well as in The Plains of Passage. It is very much the parading of old characters to celebrate the end of the series, and while the novel does not suffer, it is a bit unusual to have this particular plot device in novels. Fans will remember most of what is recalled in this latest novel and will enjoy the trip down memory lane, but those that are attempting to pick up the series with the last novel may find it a bit more difficult to get through these passages.
One of the pleasures of reading any of Ms. Auel’s novels is her meticulous research. Each novel is specific in its details, to the point where the artifacts/landscape/behaviors being described are crystal clear. The Land of Painted Caves follows this tradition with tremendous attention to detail regarding various cave paintings throughout the region that Ayla visits as part of her Donier tour. The detail is so great that a quick Internet search after finishing the novel was able to uncover the exact caves and landmarks described in the novel, so that the reader, if one so chooses, can easily discern where in France the action is taking place. Unfortunately, while adding an air of reality and credence to the novel, the descriptions also tend to bog down the story and add at least 300 mostly unnecessary pages to this behemoth.
I am an unabashed Ayla fan and have been since I read the first novel of the series in high school. I squealed with delight when I opened the box containing The Land of Painted Caves and eagerly anticipated all 768 pages of it. While it is not my favorite in the series, it was great to be able to visit again with Ayla and Jondalar and experience what life may have been like for the Cro-Magnons tens of thousands of years ago. A true fan can overlook the bad – the repetition and tedious descriptions, the lack of tension – for the good – it’s Ayla and Jondalar. The ending is satisfactory, albeit expected, but I am supremely glad that I was able to experience this ground-breaking series. Ms. Auel’s descriptions are so realistic, I will forever picture Ayla and her family when reading about prehistoric man. In Ayla, Ms. Auel makes our ancient ancestors come alive, and readers everywhere are better for having been introduced to this amazing woman.
Thank you to Crown Publishing Group for my advanced copy!