How in the world is it that I am just now reading Clan of the Cave Bear for the first time? Isn't that wild? I have so much to say about it I could burst. Let's get one thing straight: we have zero interest in the book's historical accuracy. As far as plot summary, let's just go with: "totally totally a legitimate description of a bangin' Cro-Magnon blonde successfully infiltrating a group of fugly Neanderthals and being all Katniss Everdeen connnnnnnstantly until the World's Worst Pre-Human boots her out because he's threatened by powerful women with the ability to verbalize their emotions." THAT OLD STORY, RIGHT?
Right. When I announced we were doing Clan of the Cave Bear, a reader emailed to reminisce about skimming it as an eleven year old for parts she could masturbate to, which caused me to have a profound personal meditation on how lackluster everyone's masturbation material was circa 1992. Can you imagine? Young women were masturbating to Clan of the Cave Bear. And then, right, after that email, I assumed there must be some hot stuff, only to discover there's one sex scene, and it makes Marlon Brando sweating all over Maria Schneider seem like, uh, something you might actually want to masturbate to. Dark days!
Speaking of That Scene, Broud is the worst. Broud is UNBEARABLE. Broud is loathsome. And even though he tries to be all Thug Life, you know who Broud is? Broud is Jan Brady to Ayla's Marcia. I was already thinking that, and then this happened:
Broud turned his back, clenching his fists, before he could see the compliment Norg paid to the son of Brun's mate. Ayla, Ayla, Ayla. Everybody is talking about Ayla. You'd think no one did anything at this Clan Gathering except her.
But, really, Ayla is a bit much. Is there anything she can't do? Anyone (other than Broud) who isn't captivated at once by her winsome charms and ability to succeed at the weirdest tasks? Clan of the Cave Bear is a little like Neanderthal fan fiction, and Ayla is a classic Mary Sue. She fashions a sports bra for herself from a leather thong! She kills hyenas with a sling and a couple of rocks! She can conceptualize numbers greater than three! She has a male totem! She can easily calculate everyone's share of the tip when you forget to get separate checks. She changes her own oil, and finds the errors in her own H&R Block return. It gets old.
Personally, I would have had more respect for Ayla if she'd just killed Broud in his sleep. He's the only real fly in her ointment, he's bad to the bone, and he's barely middle-management material; this is not who you want running the show. You're a medicine woman: concoct something and put him out of his misery, already. Jean Auel tells us about eighty times that, if you're a Neanderthal, you're a senior citizen by 25—it's not like anyone's going to get suspicious. But then there are so many examples in trashy fiction of otherwise bad-ass characters foolishly allowing terrible people to live. Here's the truth: Gollum was the exception to the rule. For the most part, quietly knifing the sociopaths who stand between you and your goals should be an acceptable solution. At least in primitive hunter-gatherer communities! I'm not suggesting you lure Susie from Accounting into a dark alley because she's questioning your gas receipts. But can anyone make a good case for not-killing Broud?
About halfway through the novel, I began to have a niggling suspicion that it was secretly written by Dr. Sears as an advertisement for attachment parenting. Babywearing, co-sleeping, natural childbirth, breastfeeding, elimination communication, cross-nursing, baby-led weaning…those are some attached little cave-babies, you know? And when Iza dies and Ayla is all despondent and frumpy and forgets to nurse Durc, there might as well be a BITCH, YOU ARE GOING TO GET MASTITIS sign on her hearth. Sure enough, the ol' "milk fever" hits, and by the time she's better, her milk has dried up and Durc is crawling from cave to cave like the Little Matchstick girl, trying to steal nummies from the other ladies. Which they give him, obviously, because their access to Enfamil Gentlease was pretty limited, and they were boiling water with hot stones to make their unpleasant roots and millet palatable.
Sometimes you read books set in the long, long ago, and it seems pretty great. There's a lot of lying around naked on soft grass, or a permanent and willing underclass helps you do your hair in a variety of fun styles, or men fight each other over your hot self. That is not the case with Clan of the Cave Bear. Not by a long shot. Everything seems sort of cold and dirty and men punch you for addressing them directly, and when you eventually get to trip balls on ergot, it winds up being a real bad scene. I appreciate that. The past sucked, you know?
I KNOW YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS BOOK. HERE ARE SOME STARTING QUESTIONS!
• No, really, how did I miss this one in early adolescence? Did you know I only read Flowers in the Attic this spring? True story.
• I don't really get the impression that Cro-Magnons were this attractive, even next to the Neanderthals. Ayla seems a little too Bo Derek for words.
• Was anyone else getting an Anne Shirley/Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert vibe from Ayla's relationship with Iza and Creb? "All plucky orphans are alike; all miserable orphans are miserable in their own way."
• Why do we think that Neanderthals would have had names like Iza and Creb? If they had names at all, aren't Glenn and Wanda just as plausible? They're Neanderthals, not cats regurgitating hairballs.
• Should I read Valley of the Horses? I was kind of checked out for the last bit, because I have a three-month-old baby and got a little weepy and snivel-y when Broud said she had to leave Durc behind.
• In the days before the Internet, what depressingly marginal works of literature did YOU masturbate to? Or was it more like George Costanza and that issue of Glamour?
• What classic villains should have been taken out by the protagonist way, way before they got their comeuppance?
• There's an obligatory "using every part of the mammoth" scene. Why is there never a mildly slacker-ish hunter-gatherer community that's all "you know what, let's just toss the small intestine?"
• I refuse to believe they didn't know that babies came from humping. Wouldn't it have been super-obvious that babies come from humping?
For next time, let's delve into the Classic Trash sub-category of Books That Have Been Turned Into A Miniseries Starring Richard Chamberlain. The Thorn Birds—let's do it!
Nicole Cliffe is the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.