The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I can’t remember when I first read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; it was possibly in the early 2000s – long enough ago to have forgotten most of the story, but recently enough that certain scenes have stayed quite clearly in my mind. I knew I hadn’t understood everything the first time, so when I saw that Annabel of Annabookbel was hosting a readalong in January I thought it would be interesting to read it again. Unfortunately, it was a busier month than I expected and I fell too far behind to be able to participate in the readalong, but I have been re-reading the book anyway and finished a few days ago.

The Name of the Rose is set in 1327 and is narrated by Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice from Austria. I think the best way I can describe the book is to quote directly from the back cover of my old Picador edition: “Whether you’re into Sherlock Holmes, Montaillou, Borges, the nouvelle critique, the Rule of St. Benedict, metaphysics, library design, or The Thing from the Crypt, you’ll love it. Who can that miss out?” It probably misses out quite a lot of people, actually, but at least that gives you a good idea of the range and number of different topics and influences found in the novel.

The story begins with Adso accompanying a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, to a remote Benedictine monastery in the Italian mountains. In a few days’ time, this monastery will host a meeting between an embassy from Pope John XXII and a group of Minorites, but preparations are not going according to plan…Adelmo, a young illustrator known for his beautiful illuminated manuscripts, has been found dead, having supposedly fallen from a window of the Aedificium, the large building which houses the abbey’s renowned library. Was it suicide or was it murder? William, who has already impressed the abbot by successfully locating a lost horse, is asked to investigate.

There’s a reason why Eco has given William the name ‘Baskerville’ – as he moves around the abbey asking questions and uncovering the circumstances behind Adelmo’s death, he uses his powers of deduction just like Sherlock Holmes. Adso, of course, fills the position of Dr Watson, needing William to explain things to him as he goes along (which benefits the reader as well). But when a second death occurs, this one more gruesome than the first, William knows that if he is to have any chance of solving the mystery, he will need to gain access to the library – the secret, forbidden library which only the librarian and his assistant are allowed to enter.

As a murder mystery, The Name of the Rose is quite a good one. Reading it for the second time, I remembered the solution and the culprit, but not every detail of the plot, so I enjoyed watching it all unfold again. There are clues – physical and spoken – there are secrets to uncover, complex relationships to untangle and red herrings which point us in the wrong direction for a while. There are also some wonderful descriptions of the library, a genuinely eerie and sinister place; the scenes in which William and Adso explore its labyrinthine passages and chambers are some of the highlights of the book.

But The Name of the Rose is much more than just a medieval mystery novel. It is also a very detailed and erudite study of the religious history of Europe in the early 14th century, which I think is why some people love the book while others struggle with it. At the time of our story, the papacy has moved from its usual home in Rome to Avignon during a period of conflict between the church and the kings of France. From the very beginning of the novel, we are given page after page of information on the divisions within the church and the various orders and sects, such as the controversial movement led by Fra Dolcino, as well as lots of theological discussions on subjects ranging from poverty to whether Jesus ever laughed. The first time I read the book I found myself skimming over most of this to get to the murder mystery parts; this time, I tried to concentrate and understand the religious detail, but Eco’s style does not make it easy to absorb the facts and I admit there was still a lot that went over my head.

I enjoyed my re-read of this book, although I’m not sure whether I really got much more out of it than I did on my first read. I did love revisiting the library scenes, the descriptions of monastery life, and the characters of William and Adso. I have never tried reading any of Umberto Eco’s other books, but maybe I should. Does anyone have a recommendation?

34 thoughts on “The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

  1. lauriebrown54 says:

    I loved ‘Foucalt’s Pendulum’, which is also a mystery but set in modern day. It’s been 30 years since I read it, so I don’t remember any details, other than that I couldn’t put it down.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I have read nothing by Umberto Eco though I have owned a paperback copy of The Name of the Rose for decades. I was afraid for a long time that I would not understand it, but your review has encouraged me to get to it this year for sure. I think my Will Durant studies will help with the religious history parts and I love any book with a library in it!

    • Helen says:

      I think The Name of the Rose is the sort of book you can still enjoy even if you don’t understand all of it. I’m sure with your reading of the Will Durant books you won’t have a problem anyway!

  3. Calmgrove says:

    You could try Eco’s Baudolino (2001) if you’re still enamoured with matters medieval—like The Name of the Rose it’s been a while since I read it but I hung on to my copy for a future reread, and so that might be a recommendation! I thought Foucault’s Pendulum clever at showing how conspiracy theories got started and took a life of their own, but I’m not sure I’d want to revisit it. I’ve had a copy of The Island of the Day Before but not read it yet, and am tempted by his most recent, The Prague Cemetery.

    Not sure if any of that’s any help!

  4. Margaret says:

    I enjoyed The Name of the Rose more than Foucault’s Pendulum, which is not an easy read. I’ve kept The Name of the Rose intending to re-read it, but haven’t yet and I gave Foucault’s Pendulum away as I knew I could never re-read it. I haven’t read any more of his books although I have a copy of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana still waiting to be read.

    • Helen says:

      Foucault’s Pendulum has never really sounded appealing to me, but I’m wondering whether I should give it a try anyway. I would be interested to hear more about The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana if you get round to reading it!

    • Helen says:

      I think it’s definitely the sort of book that is worth reading more than once, especially if enough time has passed that you can’t remember all the details.

  5. Café Society says:

    I re-read this several years ago for a book group and found that I didn’t enjoy it anything like as much as I had the first time round. Maybe I had to rush it to be ready for the meeting, I don’t remember but I do remember being so very disappointed.

    • Helen says:

      That’s a shame. I had the opposite experience – I remember rushing through it the first time, only really interested in the murder mystery parts and being left feeling disappointed. This time I enjoyed it much more, so re-reading was the right decision for me.

  6. jenclair says:

    Loved The Name of the Rose, liked Foucault’s Pendulum, and DNF Baudolino. Haven’t tried anything by Umberto Eco in years, but maybe I should reread The Name of the Rose.

    • Helen says:

      I think The Name of the Rose is worth re-reading. I haven’t decided yet whether I will try more of his books, but I’m glad you liked Foucault’s Pendulum.

  7. Lark says:

    I love this book, especially that crazy labyrinth of a library they explore as they try to solve the murders. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Eco’s essays, and I also read and really liked Foucault’s Pendulum….although it’s a bit of a crazy ride as well. Like JenClair, I ended up not finishing Baudolino, or The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana either. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      The library scenes are my favourite parts of the book. 🙂 I’m glad you liked Foucault’s Pendulum. It seems to be a popular one with the commenters on this post!

  8. Anne says:

    Like you, I only skimmed through the parts about religious issues and heretics, it might be worth a re-read. But I thoroughly enjoyed Baudolino, which deals with a lot of medieval myths and mythological creatures in a very funny way – I really recommend it to you!

  9. Carmen says:

    I own The Name of the Rose and Prague Cemetery. I have read neither. I suspect I would like the religious elements of the former more that I did like the mystery when I saw the movie adaptation; I thought it lacked believability.

  10. cirtnecce says:

    I have tried so many times to read this book and failed every single time….I have no idea why, I love history, fascinated by how Christianity evolved and its a medieval murder mystery….but I guess Eco is hardly an easy writer to follow. But I think I will try again and soon, thanks to your excellent review!

    • Helen says:

      Eco’s writing style makes the book quite difficult to read, I think. I love parts of it, but struggle with the amount of detail on religious history. I hope you enjoy it more next time if you do try again.

  11. FictionFan says:

    I vaguely remember enjoying this way back although I think I got a bit bored with the religious stuff – I might do better with that aspect now. Unfortunately, I’ve only read one other Eco – The Prague Cemetery – and hated it. I thought it was possibly the most pretentious book I’ve ever read.

    • Helen says:

      Oh dear, I’ll avoid The Prague Cemetery then! I suspect this book is probably his best known for a good reason, but I might still try one of the others.

  12. Davida Chazan says:

    I believe I also read this a LONG time ago. I wasn’t an easy read, if I recall correctly, but I also recall that we were disappointed in the movie. No surprises there, right?

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