I first came across this book through a college roommate who really, REALLY liked it, and I can see why. I myself didn't appreciate it that much, but I'm glad I read it. Eco uses his writing to present a philosophy of life and thought, and crafts a good story while doing so. His writing style, however, is heavy, wordy, and very descriptive though not in a visual or imaginative way (perhaps due to translation). Eco tells the reader each and every small detail relevant to the story (and some details that aren't relevant), weakening the sense of the true actions taking place.
A historical mystery, the story is told through the eyes of Adso, a Dominican novice from 14th century Germany. He has been assigned as a scribe to Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar and onetime inquisitor who has been asked to act as a mediator between political factions of the church. The meeting is to take place in a Dominican abbey in the highlands of Italy renowned for its library. When one of the monks is discovered dead, foul play is suspected and Brother William is asked to look into the matter, though restrictions are placed on his investigation, namely that he stay away from the library. However, the library is central to the events taking place in the abbey. Factions are exposed between the monks, old complaints are aired, and more deaths occur as the story continues. As with all good mysteries, the answer is hidden until the end of the novel, though signs point to the answer throughout.
I quite enjoyed the mystery story in the novel, but I found it hard to pick out from the political descriptions, not to mention the coming of age story, the religious commentary, and the philosophical teachings. Perhaps in his native Itailian, Eco produced a fantastic tale that brought all elements together into a seamless narrative, but in English, it's ponderous and slow. The writing is florid, sentances strung together into huge paragraphs in which the reader gets lost, forgetting what he's reading about before he reaches the conclusion! Eco went out of his way to expose beliefs held by the characters about the workings of the 14th century European world; it became frustrating to me the fourth or fifth time I read about the fantastic basalisks or unicorns to be found in the depths of unknown lands. Equally frustrating were the descriptions of medieval justice, laying bare the fallacies employed in the trials of heretics. Perhaps this information is new to some readers, but the descriptions became celebrations of stupidity, and that really irked me. The setting is well designed once one sorts through the unnecessary language, and like I said, there is a very intricate and fascinating mystery solved. Brother William is a great character, and he utilizes Holmesian techeniques through is investigation that will delight the reader. The book seems a good fit for mystery lovers seeking something a little less fluffy than a lot of what that genre generally presents.