Auel’s Land of Painted Caves and a Modest Proposal

So I finished the latest Jean Auel book.

And by “finished” I mean that I gave up reading the unbelievably tedious journey from cave painting to cave painting to cave painting—seriously, did an editor even breathe the same AIR as this book?—skipped to where stuff started to happen, became baffled and frustrated and then downright angry, and found myself in agreement with the minor character from Book 3 who popped up to say, in effect, “Y’all need to stop fucking around or I’m gonna knock your heads together, because this shit keeps happening.” (I paraphrase, I paraphrase. But that’s the gist.)

I am going to rant for a minute or two here, and there may be spoilers, so you should stop now if you have already bought the book. If you haven’t–or if you still know where the receipt is–keep reading, I can save you a couple of precious hours.

This was a big disappointment.

Now I loved these books. I loved them even knowing that they are not great books. I started them when I was, like, ten, and they are critical bits of my childhood. I grew up with these books.

**TMI WARNING**

No, seriously, I figured out that a clitoris existed because of Jean Auel books, in a “What the hell is this thing they keep bringing up during the sex scenes?” kinda way.  For this alone, I owe Mz. Auel a debt of gratitude, otherwise I would have had to wait until ninth-grade health and learning you have something like that from a xeroxed word search is just humiliating.

**END TMI***

Really, I loved these books. I don’t care that Ayla invented everything worth inventing, spoke ten languages, was a doctor AND a psychic AND a master hunter AND beautiful AND rode lions AND domesticated the horse, while remaining modest, kind, and good with children.  I was okay with that. I pick up Valley of Horses and the lens of my youth slides back down over my brain and I feel warm and fuzzy and confident that I, too, could kill things in a pit trap and ride lions if I felt like it.  Yes, as I aged, I skipped the sex scenes, and yes, that meant I skipped a LOT of Book 4. (Oh look, mammoths! Let’s have sex! Hey, we nearly died! Let’s have sex! Oh look, locusts! Wanna have sex?) But stuff still happened, and I still enjoyed it quite a lot.

And then there was this last book.

Now, I respect the rights of authors to decide what their great works are about for themselves, and if Auel decides that the critical chunk of her books is not Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon interactions, but rather the discovery that sex = babies, then Auel gets to do that. I fully respect her right to make that choice.

…even if it is a seriously stupid-ass choice.

However, I also respect the contract with the readers, and if you’ve put the gun on the mantle in book three, you are required to fire it by book six. Saying “Hey, look, remember that gun from book three?” does not count as firing it. Visions and prophecies are not like remainders in long division—merely mentioning them does not count as resolving them.

In short, you dedicated the entire first book to the Clan, they’re the great tension of the series, the issues involved could fire three or four books, you even set up ways to deal with that issue…and instead you spent the final book exhaustively detailing every cave painting in France and then having Jondalar and Ayla fuck up their relationship Yet Again in ways that felt haphazard and worse, bafflingly illogical.

Terrible. Boring and terrible and not true to the characters and wasteful of unbelievable potential. And I really didn’t expect much. Something on par would Book 5 would have been fine, if it wrapped some loose ends and had a trade delegation to the Clan and whatnot, and nobody remembers Book 5 very fondly. I wasn’t expecting a triumph.

(I realize that this is arguably the worst review I’ve ever given a book in public, and I do so only because I’m sure Jean Auel doesn’t read my blog, but still—god, what a WASTE.)

Therefore, I have a proposal.

There was a movie a decade or so ago. It was the sequel to a very popular movie that involved people living forever by cutting off other people’s heads. The sequel started with H, ended with 2, had Sean Connery in it, and after it came out, fandom rose to its collective feet, looked at one another, and said “Let us never speak of this again.”

And we mostly haven’t. The franchise went on to have several very entertaining TV shows, and we have generally managed to go on by pretending that there never was such a movie or if there was, it was clearly some form of fevered fan-fic and not even remotely resembling canon.

I would like to propose that we place Land of Painted Caves into this category.

It didn’t happen. The book did not occur. Yeah, I’m still a little disappointed that the series ended on a kind weird note in Book 5, but at least there were hints at potential resolutions, right? Some neat characters there! Guess the vision was just a metaphor or something. Pity she never got around to writing that sixth book, but y’know, she got into her research so much, and then the aliens abducted her right out of that cave—was that crazy, or what?

There will probably be comments. I will probably chat in them.

And afterwards, let us never speak of this again.

  • reply Christina ,

    Thank You. I didn’t realize it was out, and now I won’t give in to the temptation to buy it in hardback. You totally just described my interaction with the series, right down to the age I started reading them. 😉

    So she doesn’t go back and tie up loose ends? What a sad ending for an epic journey.

    • reply Amy ,

      I am totally down with It Not Existing or Us Speaking of It Again.

      • reply Wolf Lahti ,

        It seems more and more that editors aren’t doing much of anything anymore. They used to be one of the gatekeepers of taste and quality, but now I see so many bad first drafts being published I wonder whether they even exist.

        And don’t even get me started on copy editors.

        • reply Suzi McGowen ,

          I heard she was done with the series, but the publisher said, “sorry, no, you’ve got one more under contract” and she said, “What can you do, *make* me write it?”

          I think this was a (not so under the table) eff you to the publisher.

          • reply kat ,

            Clan of the Cave Bears actually stands out in my memory as one of the only books my parents kept me from reading. I brought it home at age ten, my dad started it, my dad got to the first rape scene, there was some quiet discussion, and I was told that I could have it back “when I was older.” Hippie ethics. Kid reading sex is fine, kid reading violence is iffy, kid reading sexual violence is Not Okay. (I did, however, know about clitorises and the basic mechanics of sex by then. If my rather wide and varied reading habits hadn’t seen to that, my parents made sure to hide “The Joy of Sex” in a spot where inquisitive kids were certain to both know about it and know they shouldn’t be reading it. I had illustrations. I repeat: hippie ethics.)

            Then I never got around to reading them. My parents quite liked them, though, and I’ll have to warn my mother not to bother with the sixth one.

            More generally… what is it with dragging a series on far beyond the point where it really, truly, ought to die? I’ve seen so many go that way, and it’s frustrating. I know a lot of it’s the publishers — I still treasure the memory of seeing Jim Baen, at a convention, trying to bully Lois McMaster Bujold into writing another Miles book, and her smiling sweetly as she very politely told him to fuck off. And when she finally did write a Miles book, this year, on her own time, it was a fabulous one. The world does not have enough Bujolds. As a result of which I have spent far too much time reading bad, bad books, and far too much energy subsequently applying the brain bleach that would make them Not Exist.

            I mean, I could have been reading something good.

            • reply Quinn ,

              I hope Jean reads your blog, or one of the other 100 angry fan comments online so she realizes how disgusted her fan base is with the last book. It’s been a week since I finished the book and I’m still angry. I agree with 100 percent of what u wrote here….

              • reply Taellosse ,

                *sigh* That’s a shame–I was hoping this one was going to be better than the last one. I quite enjoyed the first 4 books. I got them all in paperback as a Christmas present when I was about 12 or so from an aunt. I borrowed the 5th book in hardback from my mother to read it, and a few months back gave in to impulse and bought the whole series in audio format from Audible (they’re better in written form, though. Especially the sex scenes). I just got the latest one from there as well, and will probably try listening to it when I’m finished with my current audio book. I’m not optimistic I’ll get through it now, though. Maybe I’d better hold off and try it in print form first. Easier to skip boring bits in that format.

                I’ve got the wrong chromosomal arrangement to credit Auel with the discovery of any of my own interesting body parts, but it IS from those books that I first learned of the other gender’s set-up, and I, too, first read them at an age where an interesting Mary-Sue character is something easy to overlook, and so I, similarly, hold the books in greater regard than they really probably deserve.

                • reply Hawk ,

                  Well. I never read these books, myself – I picked up Clan of the Cave Bear when I was about ten, got to the first rape scene, and pitched the book across the room, where it stayed until it was time to return it to the library.

                  I have issues, I know.

                  However, if Auel did have a contractual obligation, and either didn’t wish to finish or wanted more time to work on the book, she should have worked something out in a professional manner, not given the publisher a manuscript that was clearly not even trying, from what you all have said. I agree with Kat: any writer worth her salt can and should be able to stand up to her publisher and make certain her art has the time and space it needs.

                  And the editor’s job is make certain that those loose ends get tied up; this book sounds like it was as much a failure of the editors as the author.

                  On a slightly other note…Kat, what’s the latest Miles book? I feel suddenly panicked, like I missed an important train….!

                  • reply Pa_Hsia ,

                    I’ve never read the books in question (I have considered them in the past, although I’m seriously reconsidering now I know about the quality of the ending), and I’m a little disturbed by the above references to the ‘first’ rape scene.
                    How many rape scenes can one book contain without turning into misogynist erotica?

                    • reply Phooka ,

                      I must admit, I am amazed at how many people have made it past the third book in this series to even reach this recent book. I credit The Mammoth Hunters with being the book that ruined all other love triangles for me. After 768 pages dedicated to almost nothing other than “why does he/she not like me? I must not talk to them or attempt to resolve this in any way because angsting silently for hundreds of pages on end is clearly the best answer here!”, I have so much surplus drama caused by one non-communicative love triangle that, years later, I am still getting rid of it by the buckets full.
                      However, I do remember the first two books fondly…

                      • reply Katebat ,

                        Thanks for the warning. They were on my to-be-read list, a bit farther down, and I think you just knocked them out of the park and through someone’s windshield…

                        • reply Angela in Seattle ,

                          I find it ironic that last month, the Costco Connection magazine ran an interview with Ms. Auel, wherein she discussed the editing process and her pride in finally finishing the long journey with the characters.

                          So yes, an editor did apparently breathe the same air as this book. Repeatedly. Don’t know how it got past them, but maybe they had dollar signs in their eyes.

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