The book was 'Searoad' by Ursula K. Leguin. It's published as a novel but is a collection of short stories - vignettes, really - plus one novella. The material was originally written circa 1990 - '91 and the book is copyrighted 1991.
I was, of course, otherwise occupied during that time period. I must have run across the book when I returned from the Gulf. There was a small bookstore in San Clemente that I used to frequent before and after the war, but the yellowed bookmark inside the paperback bears the name of Foley Books in San Francisco. So the circumstantial evidence suggests that I bought it there, perhaps on one of my occasional visits to 'The City', or after my marriage (in 1992) to Ms. X.
The book is one of UKL's few published volumes of realistic fiction. There are occasional nods to science fiction and fantasy: there is Rosemarie Tucket, who has a passion for SF books and a fantasy friendship with an alien 'energy man'; Frances, the narrator of 'True Love' who offers insights into Star Trek and the identity of Captain Kirk's true love; there's the apparition of Ailie's mother, and there's Johanna, who begins to see mysterious messages in the foam; and there's the visionary Lily Frances Herne, who sees angels.
But mostly it is a collection of tales set in a small town on the Oregon Coast in the late 20th century (with the excpetion of the novella, 'Hernes', a family saga of four generations of women). It is not a page-turner but it is beautifully written.
There seems to be a nod to Virginia Woolf implied in the voice of Virginia Herne; on p. 190 she says, cryptically, "That's what Virginia said!" in reference to her need for a workspace (i.e., a "room of her own"); on p. 220, there's an equally cryptic aside, "We have the same name." You have to go to p. 223 in the appendix of character biographies to learn that the fictional VH published, in 1969, a work titled 'Woolf's Voices'. (The casual bookstore browser picking up the paperback could easily mistake the final entries on p. 224 for a list of the real-life author's own published works.)
I read the book cover to coverover the weekend. Some of the moments that stayed with me: Rosemarie's fantasy life; the 'True Love' narrator's passion for books (in her blessedly pre-internet world); Bill Weisler's existential horror upon learning that flawed works can be sold for more than perfect ones; Deb Shoto's struggle with the demon inside of her; Warren's unsuccessful attempts to avoid, and his final reconciliation with, the party of pensioners in the small town (and, implicitly, his acceptance of his own mortality); the gradual fleshing out of Ava's character through the eyes of other characters; Jane's anguish at having "failed" to "protect" her daughter Lily (concretized in the dream-image of a watch, punning on the "watch" that she believes she failed to keep, and echoed in Fanny's earlier grieving over the loss of Johnny, p. 192); the recurring images of the Oregon coast and of the foam on the seashore; paradoxes about language and existence (how can a person "be dead" if they no longer exist? and the multiple meanings and connotations of the word "body"); and the image of the 'rain women' at the beginning. I wonder who the rain women are.
I think I met Ursula Leguin once. It would have been late 2000 or early 2001, probably, at a Reclaiming event - some equinox or solstice or Samhain thing or whatever. Maybe it was Samhain (I think it's properly pronounced "sah-win" but I always mentally say it "Sam Hayne"), the cross-quarter corresponding to Halloween. Maybe people were in costume, I can't remember. I just remember this cheerful, short lady with grey hair, a dead ringer for the cover photographs of UKL, and I introduced myself to her and she gave her name as Ursula. Well, I don't know for a fact that it was her, but Ursula isn't all that common a name, and I knew UKL lived in Portland and I had surmised (from clues in books like 'Always Coming Home') that she had ties to the pagan community; so I suspected it might actually be her. But it just didn't seem the time or place to say "Geeeee whiz, are you Ursula K. LeGuin, the Famous Author?!?" So I guess I'll never know for sure.
LeGuin was born in late October, 1929, making her the same age, to within a couple of weeks, as my mother. And so help me, in the photo at the back of 'Searoad' she looks for all the world like Stella. I think of what they might have had in common - creative intellectual women, growing up in a sexist era - and I try to imagine the conversations they would have had if they'd met in person. I remember Mom being a LeGuin fan and introducing me to the Earthsea books and, I think, 'Rocannon's World' and 'The Left Hand of Darkness'. So I guess in a sense I have always subconsciously thought of Ursula as Stella's doppelganger.
I'm reading through 'Searoad' a second time now. I'm realizing how much of the book has to do with death. Perhaps this is what the back-cover blurb means when it says "our world ends here, and another begins".