Jean M(arie) Auel Susan Isaacs - Essay

Susan Isaacs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mrs. Auel is craftsman enough to weave her facts into the fabric of her book ["The Valley of Horses"], providing texture as well as information. When Ayla sutures a wound, her patient is no anonymous charity case whose injured leg is just a limb on which the author hangs her research. The wounded man is significant. His appearance marks the end of Ayla's horrible loneliness; he is the first human being she has seen in years.

His name is Jondalar, and he is one of the Others, the first Cro-Magnon Ayla can remember seeing. When he lies unconscious on the floor of her cave, her concern, curiosity and enchantment are both understandable and appropriate….

[Jondalar is] 6 feet 6, with charismatic blue eyes and enough sexual finesse to make Masters and Johnson shout hosannas. And that is the main problem with the novel. While the background seems authentic, the characters seem too good—and too modern—to be true….

Of course, this golden couple (their blondness is stressed almost ad nauseam) is no ordinary twosome; they are archetypes. Although Ayla and Jondalar have particular personalities and concerns, they also serve as models of what humanity was capable of 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. But because the author places too much weight on these characters' shoulders, their credibility is strained. They are superhuman and thus not believable. Jondalar is the ultimate civilized Cro-Magnon, a well-muscled, artistic, spear-throwing Cary Grant. And it is Ayla, and Ayla alone, who invents oral sex, horseback riding, a new technique for making fire and a better way of dragging the kill back to the cave.

But despite those qualifications, "The Valley of Horses" is great fun to read. Jean M. Auel has created ancestors who do us all credit. She has gone beyond the cliché of leopard-skin-covered, club-wielding grunters and presented a panorama of human culture in its infancy. Her characters enjoy celebrations, companionship, sex, travel and good cooking. They care for children and animals. They discuss art and religion. They are very much like us, although generally better behaved. And that's the best part of the book, to look back with Mrs. Auel and savor what we might have been.

Susan Isaacs, "Ayla Loves Jondalar," in The New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1982, p. 14.