For the first third of its 754 pages, all that happens in The Plains of Passage, Jean Auel's latest Ice Age saga, is that Ayla, her tall, blond, omnicompetent heroine, and Jondalar, Ayla's tall, blond Cro-Magnon boyfriend, travel across the grasslands of the Ukraine to the west end of the Black Sea, then up the delta of the Danube..Having mastered horse-riding (one of Ayla's many inventions), they are perceived as spirits and left alone by other cave dwellers.
So for 14 long chapters they have only each other and the teeming wildlife of the plains. Remarkably, their journey has the same steady, low-intensity fascination as an actual hike through the wilderness more than enough interest to make up for the plodding stretches that reprise the three volumes of the Earth's Children series that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear.
Auel intercuts passages limited to Cro-Magnon points of view with others that only someone up on the latest paleontology could have written, such as treatises on how mammoths mate and glaciers grow. Yet Ayla's story is not mere sugarcoating on an educational pill. She is Woman, in an era when even the traditional tasks of housewifery had a heroic dimension. Shopping at Nature's great supermarket required slings and spears.
Sometimes, admittedly, Ayla comes on more as a denizen of 1990 than of 35,000 B.C., and in a romantic mood she can sound like Barbara Cartland: ''She wanted to hold him, and touch him, and Pleasure him, and feel him Pleasuring her the way he did so well.''
Such blemishes don't weigh greatly against Auel's overall achievement in making us understand that cavemen were people, with brains and feelings and families and lives worth examining. Readers who've never given much thought to these unchronicled, dim reaches of history will marvel at Auel's panoramas of the Paleolithic.
After the long opening nature walk, there is a sustained stretch of high adventure, when Jondalar falls into the hands of Attaroa, the sadistic leader of a tribe of proto-Amazons who've locked their men in a wooden stockade, where they are starved, tortured, and worked to death. In this malign matriarchy, Attaroa boasts, ''We don't worry about giving men Pleasures anymore. Instead of sharing a hearth with a man, I have put women together. They share the work, they help each other with their children, they understand each other. When there are no men around, the Mother will have to mix the spirits of women, and only female children will be born.'' Skeptical readers may object to having a character express such thoughts so many years before Andrea Dworkin, but Attaroa is such a primal hoot that she's worth a bit of strained credibility.
This isn't to suggest that Jean Auel must be enjoyed only as ''camp.'' Quite the contrary, like all the great blockbuster novelists from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Herman Wouk, Auel's main strength is melodrama that has been enlisted in the service of a serious, ''improving'' message that a lot of people want to receive. In Auel's case the didactic component is a postfeminist allegory that validates Woman's new place in society, with one foot in the (hunting/ gathering) workplace and the other still solidly planted on the domestic hearth. B+