The first chapter of "The Valley of Horses" could easily have been the last chapter of Jean Auel's earlier novel of prehistoric Europe, "The Clan of the Cave Bear." But beyond its first chapter, "The Valley of Horses" is a very different and unfortunately lesser book. It follows the wandering of "Cave Bear" heroine Ayla, now exiled from her young son and her adopted people, the Neandertal Clan.

In alternate chapters the novel also follows the wanderings of two brothers, Thonolan and Jondalar, in their ritual journey. Readers used to Auel's "Cave Bear" Neandertals who had such names as Brun, Durc and Uba might at first be startled by a character who introduces himself as Jondalar of Zelandonii. In fact, in every way, Jondalar is an extreme example of the differences between Auel's anthropologically passe' Homo sapiens Neandertalensis and her anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens.

Jondalar is also an example of what is wrong with the novel. He is 6-foot-6, blond, well-built, sexually well endowed, considerate, respectful, and given to laughing "his big, lusty, warm laugh." Of course women love him -- over and over again. At one point, a woman says to him, entirely seriously: "Jondalar, you've given me more . . . more than any man. If I were to mate you, I'd have so much, I'd have more than any other woman I know. They'd be envious. They already know a touch from you can make a woman feel more alive, more . . . Jondalar, you are every woman's desire."

Yes, Auel's people talk that way. And, yes, this woman has said something significant about Jondalar -- and about Ayla. They are too perfect, they are too much.

Ayla settles in her valley where Jondalar will eventually find her and begins at once to shed her Clan upbringing and create a new way of life.

Ayla's genius is boundless. She is not quite a female Tarzan with her pet lion Baby and her horse Whinney, but she comes close. A partial list of her discoveries and inventions includes making fire with flint and iron pyrite (instead of by friction with sticks in the way of the Clan and of Jondalar's people), brushing and braiding her hair (instead of raking through it with her fingers and letting it hang loose), whistling and giving bird calls, domesticating and riding not only a horse, but a cave lion, and creating and using a travois. This from a woman who has been taught to think of lions as dangerous predators and of horses only as food. She has also figured out a connection between sex and conception, though neither the Clan nor Jondalar's people suspects that any connection exists.

Jean Auel can write. She proved it in "The Clan of the Cave Bear," whatever its flaws. She can tell a story. She can create strong, believable characters and give them enough trouble, enough sustained, compelling conflict to keep a story moving and hold a reader's interest. Yet she forgets to do this in "The Valley of Horses." Troubles, large or small, are all quickly resolved, often by Ayla's convenient flashes of genius or Jondalar's lucky stumble across help -- just in time.

Jondalar's only problem is his apparent inability to fall in love. He enjoys all those women who want him, but there's just something missing.

Ayla's problem is that she is alone except for her animals. She would like to find a mate and companions, but in three years she makes absolutely no effort to do so. Most of the time her life is very comfortable. In spite of her inventing, discovering, and domesticating, she marks time.

Finally, after 320 pages of Jondalar's wandering from woman to woman and of Ayla's displays of genius, the two meet. As soon as Ayla learns enough of Jondalar's language to communicate, they begin a tedious series of she/he-loves-me, she/he-loves-me-not misunderstandings. Poor reward for any reader persistent enough to get this far.

Auel seems to like these characters. The phrase "Earth's Children" at the bottom of her book's title page seems to indicate that she intends to write about them or others of their kind again. If she has any such intention, I hope she will be able to like her characters a little less--or at least give the reader less hard-sell on them. Make them less perfect, less protected. Her failure to do these things in "The Valley of Horses" has produced a weak, rambling, overlong story. Children, even "Earth's Children," can be smothered by loving, blind overprotection.