A quick investigation of Jean M. Auel tells me that she began publishing her Earth's Children series in 1980, and I must have been introduced to the series in about 1985 when The Mammoth Hunters was published. So my impression that I've been reading this series since the dawn of time has some foundation.
The Land of Painted Caves is the sixth and, apparently, the final book in the series. For those of you who don't know, these novels are set in the Ice Age and centered around Ayla, who is orphaned at an early age, lives with Neanderthals who call themselves the Clan, is banished, lives on her own and tames various animals, meets hunka hunka burnin' love Jondalar and returns with him (and some horses and a wolf) to his own people, the Zelandonii.
Having worked through the last two books, I was already beginning to tire of this particular epic, but I'm loyal and wanted to see how the whole thing ended.
I am SO disappointed.
For one thing, have I just grown out of this kind of novel, or did these books always read like an animated textbook? It is pretty interesting to learn about how Ice Age people may have lived, but the author is way too evident in this book, stopping the action every so often to give us a little lecture so that you end up feeling the characters are those models in a museum diorama, spears brandished and hair all over the place.
Then there's the repetition. Seriously. EVERY time someone new meets Ayla (and there is a cast of thousands, most of whose names confusingly begin with J) they HAVE to be awed by the tame horses, scared of the wolf and aware of Ayla's strange accent. And I was starting to yell every time the Song Of The Great Earth Mother was sung.
Oh Yes, The Capitals. They Abound. The novel is larded with titles, the one that really got to me being She Who Is First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother, and its many variations. This 700+ page chunkster is ponderous enough without slowing things down by putting Capital Letters on almost every line.
And the whole Zelandonii thing is like some vast New Age commune who take their religion with deadly seriousness. I could never have imagined that sex rites, orgies and drug-taking could seem like so little fun or be surrounded by so many rules and rituals. I'm sure it's quite accurate from a research viewpoint, but hoo boy, I think I'd rather take today's stresses and idiocies over this depiction of a natural idyll.
And I could go on. And I'm really not trying to be unkind to Auel, who has obviously taken huge pains to research and write these books. As I said, I've read my way through the series and, taken as a whole, find it memorable. It's been hugely successful and Auel has legions of fans (don't shoot! Please!)
But what really disappointed me was the ending. No spoilers, but there were so many interesting directions Auel's epic plotlines could have gone, and yet I feel that the whole thing sort of fizzled out, as though she, too, had had quite enough of the Zelandonii (who remind me, bizarrely, of the Federation in Star Trek. Perhaps this is the effect of trying to imagine a simpler world.)
I guess I was looking for a bang (no pun intended, and while we're on that subject the honeymoon is definitely over) at the end - it came, in a sense, as a discovery/observation that would profoundly shake the Zelandonii's worldview, but even that could have been more fully explored in the plot. There's an interesting parallel to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden there, and I'd like to have seen it taken farther. If this had been my book, I'd have cut out all the middle bit about the caves (endless descriptions of cave paintings and lots of repetition of That Song) and finished the series off with a bit more brio rather than repeating a prior plotline.
As a writer, I found myself wondering - would I take on a series that would take me 30 years to finish? I love to read series, but I think it's better for all concerned if the books are written over a shorter period, even if that means the research has to be shallower. The problem of the research eventually dominating the story is all too evident here.