Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson were two of the more influential journalists of their time. In the 1930s and '40s, they traveled Europe and the United States, covering the biggest stories, influencing world leaders, warning the world about Hitler, communism, fascism and war. But, oh, how messed up were their home lives.

That's the prism through which Susan Hertog views them in "Dangerous Ambition: New Women in Search of Love and Power," a fat, ambitious dual biography that examines their lives, loves and careers.

West, a British writer and journalist, covered the Nuremberg Trials for the New Yorker, wrote about apartheid in South Africa for the Sunday Times and produced dozens of books. But her illicit relationship with novelist H.G. Wells -- which resulted in a son, Anthony -- was brutal and unhappy and overshadowed her early years. Subsequent relationships, including marriage to a philandering banker, weren't much happier.

Thompson, meanwhile, was a star, reporting extensively from Europe, serving as Berlin bureau chief for the New York Post, interviewing Adolf Hitler (and getting kicked out of Germany shortly before the war). Her syndicated column appeared in more than 200 newspapers. But her 14-year marriage to author Sinclair Lewis was steeped in unhappiness and marked by his depression, alcoholism and, ultimately, unfaithfulness.

Hertog's highly readable and fascinating account of their lives gives us the back story without becoming gossipy or tawdry. It reminds us that for many women -- especially then -- balancing career and family was a delicate and difficult mix.