"The Name of the Rose"

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Well. This sure wasn't light, summer reading. I kept wanting to put it down to read something less strenuous but then I'd find myself another thirty pages in and by the time I got to 400 there was just no way to abandon it. It's over 600 pages, and it's not easy reading, still there's something about the writing, and the story, and the characters that wouldn't let me go.

The setting is a fourteenth century Italian abbey. A monk, Matthew, and his young assistant, Adso, have been sent there on a particular mission, but when they arrive they are asked to investigate the murder of a young monk. In the seven days they are there, other crimes occur and they are drawn into the darker side of monastic life. Some of it deals with ordinary human weakness and sin, but there are other passages, long and philosophical, about things like the purpose of laughter and whether it's good or evil.

There's an ancient library on the abbey's top floor, a dark and musty labyrinth, the secrets of which are known only to the Abbot and the appointed librarian. Matthew and Adso have to figure out how to get in and out, how all the rooms connect and why one room seems to be missing. The book has diagrams thank goodness or I'd have been as lost as they were.

Although this is a murder mystery, the mental workout you get while you're reading it makes it far more. It will have you turning back to try to figure out what just happened, or to understand how he got you started on this particular train of thought, or to see how this new piece of the puzzle fits into the whole. It quickly becomes clear that the author is a scholar with a brilliant mind and that your job as his reader is to hang on and try to keep up. By the time I was finished, I was simply grateful for the amazing world he created and allowed me to share. As one reviewer said, the detective story is just "the frosting on a rather rich cake".

Another review called it "a philosophical and intellectual exercise". I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was worth the effort. The rich, detailed history; the ideas; the architecture; the character types, the glorious books - it was an education. If I was asked if I liked it, I wouldn't know what to say. Like seems a trivial word for such a book. I am very glad I read it, and I know I will never forget it.