The Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in Jean Auel’s saga about an orphan, Ayla, who is “other” (modern human) and the Neanderthals that adopt her into their clan. The novel is set in Ice Age Europe about 25,000 years ago, on the brink of the extinction of the Neanderthals.
Ayla is orphaned during an Earthquake and sometime later is found by a clan of Neanderthals trekking across the land in search of a new cave to dwell in. A woman takes pity on Ayla and saves her. Ayla is eventually welcomed into the clan but there are those who still dislike her for her otherness. Ayla must relinquish the behaviors that come natural to her as she tries to conform to the clan’s way of life and be accepted by them.
I really wanted to like this book, and I gave it my best effort, but it just never clicked for me. I think the concept is unique and there is great potential here but Auel spends much of the book focusing on longwinded descriptions of anything and everything Neanderthal that the story gets lost for me. Every time I would start to get into the plot, Auel would insert a tedious description of the scenery or animals or the creation of their tools. It was interesting at first, but the flow of the plot was constantly interrupted.
There was so much repetition. Ayla is different, Ayla is smart, and she can grasp new concepts better than the clan. Ayla and Broud hate each other. I kept waiting for something to happen, for it to come to a boil but all I gained was another detailed account of how much Ayla and Broud despised each other for most of the book. When something finally happens and I already had it figured out because it was foreshadowed for four hundred pages.
I did find parts of it very interesting such as the Neanderthal’s capacity for memory. Their brains were much larger than humans and much of their learning was inherited through genetic memory and the assertion is it prevented them from storing new memories and thus adapting to the ever changing world, leading to their extinction.
The medicine woman was very intriguing and for me this was one part that made me appreciate the wonders of the human race. The ability to survive and to learn the healing arts through the use of plants and other herbals is just incredible. That we have endured for hundreds of thousands of years through our adaptability and our basic instinct for survival is astounding when you look at it from the point of a Neanderthal.
There are parts of the book that practically scream sequel to me. It could also be that I’m reading it over twenty years after it was first published, but maybe not. Ayla constantly defies the clan by teaching herself to hunt and make weapons and I know Auel is demonstrating Ayla’s differentness and her lack of conformity, but I also feel like she is preparing her for life on her own, and giving her the survival skills to make it for another book.
I feel like this could have been a really great book, but Auel’s research weighs the story down and it falls short for me. I think the author does a great job on the research and it shows she knows what she is talking about but its fiction, not a history text. Granted, it’s historical fiction, but I’m not a caveman, don’t beat me over the head with the research.