Last night Mad Men, everyone’s favorite dramedy about midcentury malaise, amazingly high-functioning alcoholics, fantastic clothes, questionable parenting choices, and reinvention through capitalism, returned to the small screen. Characters as rich as Matthew Weiner’s don’t come along everyday. They do, however, have interesting parallels on the page. Find more of your favorite mad man or woman in these books:
DON DRAPER The self-invented, rags-to-riches American is a trope of our national literature, from Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby) to Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Both Jimmy Gatz and Lulamae Barnes started life in the hinterlands—South Dakota, rural Texas—before moving to New York City to assume a more sophisticated, affluent persona, complete with a new name, for which each became famous. Don combines elements of those two charmers with the chronic dissatisfaction of suburbanite Bob Slocum (Something Happened).
BETTY DRAPER World literature abounds with beautiful, betrayed blondes, fragile yet unbroken women whom neither money nor sex appeal could protect. The occasionally cruel, occasionally vulnerable spirit of Betty Draper is perhaps best captured by protagonist Lyra’s not-entirely-maternal mother Mrs. Coulter (His Dark Materials), filtered through a noir-ish lens, like that of femme fatale Brigid O’Shaunnessy (The Maltese Falcon). Can’t you just see Betty walking into a PI’s office, a hat stylishly cocked over one eye, taking out a cigarette and asking for a light?
JOAN HOLLOWAY Joan’s literary predecessor is another ultra-feminine career woman who is not quite a feminist: Scarlet O’Hara (Gone With the Wind). Tough-minded, practical, occasionally merciless, ready to kill if necessary, but more comfortable slaying men with a glance or with her wit, and very much a survivor. With a dash of the independence, steely intelligence, and ability to power through heartbreak of Janie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God).
PEGGY OLSON Part Katey Kontent (The Rules of Civility)—another wry, ambitious, and passionate Brooklyn native—and part Polly Andrews (The Group), who values hard work and family, and who persists through bad luck, especially with men, to shape the kind of life she wants for herself in an unforgiving city. With a dash of the original Plain Jane (Jane Eyre), whose self-confidence enables her to speak truth to, and gain respect from, powerful men.
ROGER STERLING Charismatic, lucky, and yet hollowed out by the disappointments of middle age, Roger Sterling, like Charles Croker (A Man in Full), has more money than is good for him and is accustomed, even addicted, to what it’s supposed to buy him. His skewering sense of humor, like the louche Lord Goring’s (An Ideal Husband), is what redeems him.
PETE CAMPBELL Located halfway between the clueless, affluent Newland Archer (The Age of Innocence) and Jay McInerney’s coke-addled alter ego (Bright Lights, Big City), privileged striver Pete was born into much but felt entitled to even more. That entitlement, especially in combination with his gonads, consistently leads him astray. See also: Frank Wheeler (Revolutionary Road).
MEGAN DRAPER Doesn’t every hot young woman in the city want to marry someone else’s husband and use his money to become an actress? Megan is more innocent and less lost than Maria Wyeth (Play It As It Lays), along the lines of a French-Canadian Marjorie Morningstar, but Maria lies at the end of one possible future path. We’re concerned about her move to L.A.
What’s your favorite Mad Men–inspired read?