Romancing the Stone Age

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If you're going to be internationally famous, this is the way to do it. Jean Auel's books have sold 34 million copies, but she can still walk into Starbucks without turning heads, and unlike a certain teen star with similar pull, she won't be caught prancing around with a snake on her shoulders. Skinning it with a flint knife would be more her style: Auel is the author of the Neolithic saga The Clan of the Cave Bear and its four sequels.

She almost wasn't. Auel (you say it "owl," as in hoot) didn't write a word of fiction until she was 40. In 1976 she was a mother of five with an M.B.A. and no clue what to do next. "I worked for a living, butted my head up against the glass ceiling," she recalls. "I knew after a few years I wasn't going to get much further." Then the notion of writing a story about a young woman in the Ice Age popped into her head. Auel wrote like a woman possessed, working all night and wearing out a string of typewriters. She rewrote The Clan of the Cave Bear four times before she was satisfied and then sold it for $130,000.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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It has been 12 years since her last novel, but in The Shelters of Stone (Crown; 753 pages) little has changed. Auel's heroine, the plucky orphan Ayla, is still making her way in the spear-throwing, wolf-taming, sexually liberated Cro-Magnon era. Shelters is Auel's Paleolithic answer to Meet the Parents: Ayla's studly paramour Jondalar takes her home to his tribe, which lives on the site of the famous Lascaux cave paintings. Tension ensues--they had bitchy ex-girlfriends back then too--along with the occasional steamy sex scene and a short course in such lost arts as flint knapping. It's strangely absorbing: Auel's plodding prose won't win any Pulitzers, but there's a comfort to be had in her TiVo-free world, where people still get excited about a new way to make soap. Not that you will catch Auel pining for the old days. "I'd love to go visit there," she admits, "but I'd want to come back. Thank you, I prefer a nice hot shower."