[Despite] an arid narrative style that would have crushed a less audacious story, Auel has fashioned [The Clan of the Cave Bear] … with nuggets of archeology and anthropology. (p. 64)
Auel has created a remarkable, speculative portrait of a preconscious world, different from science fiction because of the constant echoes of human experience found there. The documentary effect is achieved by sprinkled passages of Dick-and-Jane anthropology on topics such as herbs, fire transporting or toolmaking. As a narrative technique it's not new: Arthur Hailey has made fortunes serving up thinly novelized instruction manuals to airports or car factories. Auel's pedagogy is more successful because it illuminates a plausible if melodramatic ancestral world oddly comforting in its richness and diversity. Moreover, it will likely reward its sponsors financially, partially because it adheres to the perennially seductive saga format of The Thorn Birds and Shōgun, or of Dickens for that matter.
But its success will ultimately be due to the affecting character of Ayla, whose life story will bind the Earth's Children series together. A sort of Cro-Magnon Katharine Hepburn, she stoically endures innumerable beatings, a rape and ritual banishment at the hands of oafish and inferior males before finally earning the honorific: The Woman Who Hunts. In Ayla, Auel has an engine both familiar and intriguingly alien enough to drive her next five books. (pp. 64-5)
Thomas Hopkins, "Perils of a Prehistoric Pauline," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 40, October 6, 1980, pp. 64-5.