May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

By Jean M. Auel

Archeology plus romance equals this long-awaited fifth novel of Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which debuted with Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) but has been in hibernation for 12 years. This time the hot young prehistoric couple, sultry Ayla and rugged Jondalar, return to Jondalar’s tribe to be mated and live happily ever after. Instead they find difficult in-laws, stubborn jealousies and ceremonies to fuss over. Not much has changed since the Ice Age.

Auel uses her fiction to peer into daily prehistoric life, so interspersed among love scenes are descriptive passages on spears, basket making and the latest in cave fashion. Our cave-dwelling ancestors—Auel has them speak contemporary English—apparently played games and gambled, gossiped and cried and drank lots of herbal tea. That’s informative but not nearly as much fun as The Flintstones. The story is thin and the cast so distended—there are 86 characters—that few will make it to the end. Ayla and Jondalar’s saga would have been a breeze at 300 pages, but unfortunately for readers and forests alike, Auel allows it to bloat to more than 700. (Crown, $28.95)

Bottom Line: Gimme less Shelters

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