Romancing the Stone Age

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Her books have sold 34 million copies, but she can still walk into Starbucks without turning heads, and unlike a certain teen star, she won't be caught prancing around with a snake on her shoulders. Skinning it with a flint knife would be more her style: Jean 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. 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.

In The Shelters of Stone (Hodder & Stoughton; 769 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 in France. 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. Auel's plodding prose won't win any Pulitzers, but there's comfort to be had in a world where people still get excited about making 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."