The Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel
I’ve been frustrated with this series since I began reading it. Before, I was annoyed with its horrible sex scenes, the way it novelizes evolutionary psychology, and its plodding sociological and ecological descriptions. The frustration in this installment was somewhat different. This time I was bothered the most by the lack of conflict. This was particularly surprising and disappointing given how much the Zelandonii prejudice against the Clan had been built up in previous books. I had expected Jondalar to have to choose between his own mother and Ayla or something. But no, Auel couldn’t seem to stand to make things that hard for her characters. The book mostly consisted of a bunch of anecdotes of Ayla solving problems for the Zelandonii tribe, introducing her new technologies and being her perfect self. They go to the summer meeting and have their wedding and their baby. Happy, happy times. In addition to her usual miraculous healing abilities, Ayla seemed to become a kind of social worker, organizing women to nurse a child whose mother wasn’t able and arranging for a crippled boy to learn a trade. The worst thing that happened was some bullying and jeering from jealous but ultimately powerless rivals. Much of the novel repeated vignettes from previous books in the series, as Ayla and Jondalar shared their histories and adventures with his people. Presumably this information is included to catch up a latecoming reader, regardless of how boring a faithful one would find them.
Before their matrimonial, Ayla and the other young brides have a little sex ed/marriage prep class with the priestess. I think the leader’s advice is meant to be liberal and practical, but since I’m sensitive about this kind of thing, of course a few statements rubbed me the wrong way. The priestess emphasizes that “sharing pleasures with your mate is not required,” but makes a point of telling the women that their men won’t like it if they refuse. The marriages are only loosely monogamous; there is no notion of adultery or social sanction against it. There are occasional ceremonies and feasts in which couples frequently pair off with others besides their mates, and the women are cautioned against jealousy. It doesn’t seem like the men get any similar warnings. After the speech from the priestess, Ayla muses about how the Clan is similar, but really they could not be more different, especially on the issue of consent. Ayla astonishes the others by telling about her magic birth control tea.
There is a song that the priestesses sing about the creation several times in the story, and each time the entire song is repeated, even though it’s the same each time. And Auel is no poet. It’s not like language has been a particular focus for any of these novels, so I didn’t expect any better. If language were a focus, the novels wouldn’t read like textbooks. Descriptions are often cliched and never surprising or striking. I feel like I would not have missed out on anything if I’d read only a Cliff’s Notes version of the story, just summaries of each chaper, and that’s a sign that a book doesn’t have strong enough language. It’s also a sign that a book shouldn’t be over 700 pages.
Toward the end of the book, Ayla becomes more and more convinced that sex and reproduction are connected, and spreads the idea to the tribe’s priestess, who tells her to keep quiet about it. This has always been an aspect of the society that made no sense to me, and that I find implausible when I find it in other places. Here’s an article explaining that humans have pretty much always known that sex makes babies, ever since we could be called human.
I’m really glad to be almost finished with this series. If the next volume doesn’t bring us some culture clash, and hopefully show us Ayla’s old Clan, then I’ll put it on my list of books I recommend others don’t bother with.