Is it possible to be both ambitious and balanced?
The answer is yes, of course it is; there are manifold examples of men and women who have achieved great things while maintaining balanced, rational lives.
Reading books like Flappers though, one can't be blamed for wondering. No doubt that the more outrageous lives make more exciting reading, but as seems always the case after reading these omnibus biographies, I'm left with the feeling that these women - who inarguably achieved great things in the face of extraordinary obstacles - are not the ones we should be holding up as shining examples of success. At least Flappers doesn't outright label them as heroines as one similar recently published book hailed its subjects.
But boy, does the outrageous make for delicious reading (if you can overlook the numerous and egregious copy-editing errors). These women were rebellious, emotionally starved, unstable sometimes to the point of madness, and ambitious. Their determination and stubbornness were admirable, if their lack of moral compass was not. I'm not referring here, by the way, to their collective sexual escapades, of which I can only sit back and applaud with awe. It's more the way they all believed, no matter how humble or grand their beginnings, that the rules didn't apply to them.
About the only woman I came out of this admiring was Josephine Baker. While her compass most certainly did not point north, the author seems to chalk up some of this to naivety and ignorance (although I'm pretty sure she knew bigamy was a no-go and just didn't care). Diana Cooper might have also made it to a happy old age, but Josephine showed the most ability to adapt, to learn, to grow, and to do it all without seeming to compromise her dignity.
Take all this with a grain of salt, of course; condensed biographies like these are necessarily incomplete and leave out a lot of details that might change the reader's perspective, but the writing is engaging and Mackrell manages to connect all five women's lives into a relatively cohesive narrative. The women themselves do the rest.